Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
When is a point-of-view shot not a point-of-view shot, but still very much a point-of-view shot? When Alfonso Cuaron makes a movie. Huh? Okay…let me explain. A strict POV shot is when the camera is being used as the eyes of a specific character. So we see the character look at something, and then we cut to that something from the POV of the character’s eyes. Basic stuff, yes? And then there is the reverse POV, when we see the world REFLECTED in the eyes of the character (see “Son of Saul” for the most complex version of this type of film-making). But very, very rarely does a director manage to give you a character’s POV from the SIDE. Hitchcock was a genius at this…and so is Alfonso Cuaron. His previous effort, “Gravity” makes its living in this way. And while he doesn’t use it as exclusively in “Roma”, when he does, it’s incredibly affecting and unsettling. The last harrowing ten minutes of “Roma” are the film’s most harrowing because he only allows us to share our heroine’s fear and dread, and her movement towards it, not the actual cause of it. I would go so far as to say my response to that scene was as visceral as any I’ve felt in some time in a non-fiction, non-horror film.
And then there’s Cuaron’s attention to the accompanying aural environment. The sounds of his environments are every bit as important as the images. Devoid of music, this mixture of subtlety and cacophony act almost as the bass line in a song, instructing us how a particular scene grooves emotionally. Many have said you don’t need subtitles to really understand the film. While that may not be altogether true, a large part of that sentiment is due to these soundscapes.
The combination of these images and sounds, plus the most era-recalling use of every shade of grey in the spectrum, make for a sumptuous experience – based on seeing it in a theater. I can only imagine it loses almost all of its effectiveness on a small screen at home (which is curious, considering it was presented by Netflix). And all of this is before we even get to the story, scene work and acting.
It is a script that successfully intertwines the smallest moments in a life-remembered with the biggest. So successful is its cross-pollination, you’d be hard-pressed to get a theater of viewers to agree on which of these remembrances were the film’s most important. Cuaron has successfully discovered that if thoroughly examined and painstakingly mined, they all add up to a whole…there is no big or small memory. They all count, and inform each other…never lasting as long in our lives as they do in the memory. And the mostly hushed dialogue in combination with the much louder silences, make for terrific stories told with unmistakable intent. Oh, and lest I forget, halfway through the film is one of the strangest scenes you’ll see this year…right up there with the Soul Train moment in “The Favourite”.
But at its heart, this is a tale of inequity between differing societal groups (whether they be immediate family, extended family, family of choice or governmental dictate) and how that inequity lasts in the memory. That sounds unreasonably academic, but I assure you, Cuaron has combined all these groups in to a very organic cookie thanks in large part to the performances of our uber-natural heroine of few words, Yalitia Aparicio, and the family she works for, led by matriarch, Marina de Tavira (both of whom are nominated for acting awards at this year’s Oscars). The balancing act Aparicio conveys between being an employee, a card-carrying member of the family, and a victim of her country’s moment in history is extraordinary. With barely a turn of her lips, she conveys all. There are simple shots of her face that will last a very long time in my mind. De Tavira, like the rest of the clan members, have such an organic bond, it often seems like we are watching non-fiction. How Cuaron managed this with five children is beyond me, but managed it he has, with only the slightest sense of them pushing emotion in one or two scenes. Two men also stand out. Jorge Antonio Guerrero (he of that bizarro scene you’ll never forget) is outstanding as Aparicio’s significant other. And in one of the strangest, but somehow incredibly appropriate, performances as a masked strong man, an actor who literally goes by the name Latin Lover, pretty much steals every scene he’s in. But truly, just as not one frame is wasted, neither are any characters, relationships or emotions amongst the cast of seemingly a hundred performers.
Listen, you may find it dull. You may find it pointless. Some have even said that minus those final ten minutes as a payoff, the prior 100 minutes felt like aimless fly-on-the-wall vérité. And I would totally understand how you might come to those conclusions (especially if viewed via Netflix on a TV). After all, it really is the antithesis of a Hollywood film. But for all the reasons I’ve stated above, I found myself moved to tears, laughing out loud, genuinely amazed by its quality, and disappointed that it was over. I could have sat there and watched the last tableau for another hour, listening only to the sounds of the city, the dogs barking, and planes flying overhead. It is easily one of 2018’s two or three best films, and, without a doubt, the best directed/created film of the year.
Written on 2/5/2019