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Roma

Well, this is just inconvenient. As I continue to struggle in my efforts at getting caught up, a ten-alarm hype alert comes rolling through my local arthouse. (Yes, Roma is technically a Netflix picture, but you should totally support your local arthouse and see it on the big screen if you have the option.) Of course, anytime Alfonso Cuaron comes out with a new picture, attention must be paid. But here we’ve got a foreign-language film shot in black and white, with a trailer that’s short on plot or premise yet long on advance critical praise.

Put it all together and a very clear message is presented: This is a movie that film geeks will fall head-over-heels in everlasting love with while the casual moviegoer will dismiss the film as pretentious; blissfully ignorant and/or unable to fully appreciate the film’s storytelling mastery and artistic depth. And that’s exactly what we got.

From start to finish, on a purely technical level, Roma is nothing short of flawless. The sound design is masterfully used to convey the stakes and tell the story in any given moment. The editing is wickedly disarming, often allowing plenty of dead space before or after the main action of any given scene. Coupled with the sound design, it creates a beautiful sense of anticipation. Most importantly, every single shot is a bona fide masterpiece. After all, we’re talking about director Alfonso Cuaron, grandmaster of the long unbroken shot. Of course the extended shots are mind-blowing marvels, but even the still shots are impeccably constructed.

I can’t possibly overstate how much information Cuaron was able to cram into every corner of every frame. Cuaron shows particular skill in conveying two different scenes — one in the foreground and one in the background — within the same shot. It’s done with such subtlety and skill that I would need at least two or three more viewings to count how many times Cuaron does that. And every single time, the background and foreground scenes contrast in a potent, heartbreaking, thought-provoking way. There’s the scene in which the wealthy and well-to-do are furniture shopping while a riot is erupting outside. There’s the scene in which two characters are having a dramatic life-changing discussion in a theater while some madcap comedy movie plays in the background. But my personal favorite has to be the scene in the hospital, as a new mother lies on a hospital bed with her newborn child in the background — I don’t dare spoil any more than that.

As for the story… well, I can tell you that this is a “slice of life” movie, in which compelling character arcs take priority over a structured plot. Our protagonist is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid and nanny for a well-to-do family in Mexico City, circa 1970. For good measure, the back half dramatizes the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971. I’m loathe to go into too much detail about Cleo, her friends, or the family she works for, because watching their lives unfold is probably the most surprising and enjoyable aspect about this film. However, given that sparse info about the premise, you can probably guess that class disparity is a central part of the movie.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a typical Cinderella story, but that’s not exactly what happens. Yes, Cleo is overworked and underpaid. Yes, the children she looks out for (played by Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, and Daniela Demesa) can be a spoiled bunch of loudmouthed and destructive spoiled brats. Yes, the married couple that employs her (played by Fernando Grediaga and Marina de Tavira) can be superficial and condescending assholes making unnecessary drama for themselves and everybody else out of their own petty bullshit.

On the other hand, we can plainly see that Cleo has enough money and free time to make a robust social life for herself, so clearly her job and employers haven’t run her into the ground too hard. What’s more, in spite of the family’s more difficult and argumentative moments, this upper-middle-class family clearly has genuine affection for their live-in maid, with a sincere and deep-seated interest in her well-being. Even better, the love and respect are mutual — in the movie’s de facto “climax” (the plot is so loosely structured that talking about it in traditional terms would be moot), Cleo goes above and beyond for these kids in a way that couldn’t be bought with money. Last but not least, the family’s internal drama shows how even well-to-do people with stable careers are only one bad day away from losing everything and living among the lower class.

All of this amounts to a movie that focuses on disparity between economic classes while also showing the common ground between them. In this political climate, that’s a bold choice. Yet because the film develops such beautifully authentic and fleshed-out characters, focusing on the kind of love and empathy that crosses socioeconomic borders, the film taps into something so universal and uplifting that it totally works.

Of course it also helps that the film is subtle. In fact, the movie is so subtle and packed with so much visual storytelling, there could be any number of ways to interpret the various metaphors and ideas on display. Yet the movie gets away with being ambiguous because Cleo and her story thread are strong enough to carry everything. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of Profesor Zovek (a comic relief character played by Mexican wrestler “Latin Lover”) and I couldn’t tell you what’s with all the airplanes flying overhead. But I did walk away from this movie feeling like I actually met someone, and glad I did. And for “slice of life” movies like this one, that is easily my most important metric for the film’s quality.

On a couple of miscellaneous notes, I adored the filmmakers’ choice to shoot in black and white. Given that the movie was heavily inspired by Cuaron’s upbringing in Mexico City, the monochrome presentation effectively drenches the film in nostalgia. Also, it’s worth noting that one scene features an extended sequence of full-frontal male nudity while the female in the scene is entirely covered. Certainly a bold choice, but if there’s anything that chips away at the sexist and ridiculous double-standard concerning male and female nudity, I’m all for it.

Roma is a work of cinematic high art, for better and for worse. There are a lot of bold choices here, and not a lot of easy answers. The plot is intentionally void of structure, everything that makes the movie worth watching is in details that could only be consciously appreciated by those with a firm grasp of filmmaking theory, and lest we forget, it’s a foreign-language film shot in black-and-white. All of this will be enough to turn away casual filmgoers. And it’s their loss.

Even if you think this isn’t your type of movie, I urge you to please give it a shot. Those with the patience and the know-how to dive deep into every shot will find themselves amply rewarded. And even those who don’t will be treated to a heartfelt story with sympathetic characters, surrounded by the most efficient and detailed world-building I’ve seen since Casablanca.

To repeat, I just compared a movie to goddamn Casablanca in terms of visual storytelling and world-building. I hope that tells you how strongly I recommend this one.

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