Understated film direction often doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When some people look for “good direction”, they look for something with a lot of style, action, and just a lot of stuff going on in the camera in general. That’s certainly all direction, but people seem to ignore the less flashy side of it. The side of it where it seems like not a whole lot is happening, but there actually is, and it’s all because of the pure technical mastery that comes with being a talented director. Even if there’s one long shot of two characters sitting and talking, there’s still a lot of thought that goes into that shot and how the director wants to make you feel. 

In the Roma neighborhood district in Mexico City, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a live-in maid for a middle-class family. She not only does a great job keeping up the place, but she has a very close relationship with the whole family. After a brief relationship with a man, she finds herself pregnant, but the family supports her in any way they can. As Cleo deals with her pregnancy, we’re treated to a story about various events in this family’s lives. 

I know I’m just preaching to the choir with an opinion that’s news to absolutely nobody, but Alfonso Cuarón is simply one of the most talented directors working in film today. This film is an astonishing technical feat, but it’s not flashy, nor has a lot going on in the visual department. It’s the pure technicality in how the scenes are framed and shot, how the actors are directed, and the sheer scale of some of the sequences he pulls off. We all know that Cuarón loves his long takes and there’s of course plenty of those here, ranging from such simple events as a family talking on the couch, or to such large-scale events like political revolutions. It’s simply breathtaking when you see a group of people walk across a vast field, then two characters walk up a hill into the foreground as we then focus on their conversation. The amount of skill and sure handedness to pull off a lot of these shots is just insane. 

It’s been a long time I’ve seen a film that felt so alive, especially in the drama genre. It’s not just the fly on the wall experience of just watching Cleo and the family live their lives, but the production and sound design is just glorious. I’m so grateful I had a surround sound system to watch this on (thanks, Dad), as it’s incredibly well mixed. As the camera moves around and focuses on different characters and settings, you can hear sounds like dialogue, footsteps, car engines, animals, and more move all around the speakers. Character voices will start off strong, then fade out once they leave the frame, then come back in. It sometimes felt the voices were too soft, but the film is at least subtitled (and I’m not fluent in Spanish) and it was so immersive that I was mostly fine with it. 

Speaking of sound, the real-life feeling was made even more immersive due to the complete lack of score. There are some scenes here and there of people listening to the radio or singing, but there’s no traditional score here. While music has always been an important aspect of complimenting a film’s visuals to make us feel different emotions, Cuarón shows that music isn’t required if everything else is done masterfully. There’s a harrowing scene at the end that just consists of one long shot, with only the visuals, sound, and sparse dialogue to create the tension. In any other movie, this scene would be shot with a lot of cuts that consists of close-ups and intense music to build up the scene, but there’s none of that here. It’s just as gripping, even when it’s presented in a less visually striking way. 

Cuarón also served as his own cinematographer here, with some gorgeous black and white visuals. While it’s all monochrome, it still feels vibrant and beautiful, with some excellent lighting. It does feel like Cuarón indulges himself a bit too much here, with some scenes feeling like they drag on and don’t add much. This is all based off his experiences growing up, though, so it does make sense to have such a slow pace without much of a plot. This is definitely more story and character driven as we follow Cleo’s story and relationship with the family. In a very quiet and understated performance, Yalitza Aparicio more than carries the film, nailing every emotional beat she’s supposed to have with the characters. Cleo has very distinct relationships with the mother, grandmother, and grandchildren, and they all have a very believable chemistry. From her sweet, motherly interactions with the children and the more tense dialogues with the adults, it all feels naturalistic, even from all the other actors. The child actors are exceptionally good and Marina de Tavira portrays a very real portrait about a mother losing control of her life. 

While I wasn’t sure what Cuarón was going for throughout most of the running time, it was the final 15 minutes really solidified this story and the characters that inhabit it. Roma is a wonderfully mesmerizing look into the life of a maid the family she works for, anchored by naturalistic performances and incredible technical skills behind the camera. While the events the characters experience may not happen to everybody, the themes and pathos are universal enough that really anybody should be able to relate. A gorgeous film and a gorgeous portrayal of humanity. 


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