I didn’t know how to start talking about Roma, the new film from Oscar-winning writer/director Alfonso Cuarón. At first, I wanted to talk about the power of the personal—how the story is a personal homage to Cuarón’s youth, a memory poem of sorts. Inspiration is another angle to take in looking at the movie as a whole, as Cuarón was clearly inspired by the real-life nanny he had a child and wanted to make a movie about her and her life. Then I thought about the larger themes of the movie, about how every life is significant, how people and events touch our lives and impact us in ways we don’t expect, how love manifests itself in so many different ways.
But then I realized: Roma isn’t a movie to talk about. It has themes, it has a story, it has dialogue and characters, but the movie is about a place and time and a total immersion in them. The last time I had this visceral a reaction to the visual experience of a movie was, well, Gravity, which just happened to be Cuarón’s last film (for which he won an Oscar for Best Director). Roma couldn’t be further away from Gravity, but what they do share is the filmmaker’s passion and talent for putting an audience right where he wants them to be. Gravity was outer space, Roma is Mexico City in 1971.
The title comes from the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City, where the family at the center of the movie lives, a close-knit and typical one, with three boys and one daughter, a mother, a father and a grandmother. Also living with them are the nanny/housekeeper, a cook and a driver. Roma looks in at this family’s life, watches the family dynamics and lives with the daily routines of the household. There certainly is personal drama, but, for Roma, our interest is not in the family as much as it is in the life of the nanny Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio. Aparicio, who has never acted before, is wonderful, playing the quiet, unassuming, warm-hearted and hard-working core of a family that swirls around her. We also get to see her living her own life, with a boyfriend and her own personal journey, but the heart of this film is her connection with this family that doesn’t even realize it would be lost without her. It is a touching tribute that Cuarón himself has said is a love letter to the real nanny who raised him.
Cuarón has admitted that Roma is the most personal movie he’s ever made and the one he put the most of himself into. So much of the movie is crafted on his memory, which explains how detailed and beautiful it is. Every single frame of this film is brimming with life—as we move through the neighborhood, there is so much to see that it would take multiple viewings to take it all in. Every single shot is built in such a visually stunning way, even in the still scenes, the screen is filled from corner to corner with shades and light, shadows and reflection. Roma is shot in black-and-white, which adds to the beauty, but Cuarón (who also serves as cinematographer here) shoots his scenes with such delicacy and intimacy, the black-and-white actually enhances the detail.
There is no way to overstate the immersive experience of this film. There were several times that I literally forgot I was sitting in a movie theatre. I am told I visited Mexico City when I was a child, but I don’t remember it. But now I feel I have been there—or, at least, I have been to the Mexico City of Alfonso Cuarón’s memory. There is no score to this film— Cuarón allows the sounds of the city to provide all the aural stimulation needed—which ends up being incredibly effective and even further enhances the immersive nature of this film.
The memories from our childhood are the ones with the deepest roots and the longest fingers. They shape us, influence us and inspire us. And nostalgia can be the most intoxicating perfume. Go see Roma and let this beautiful, detailed, moving and exhilarating movie wash over you, reminding you how gorgeous a movie can be and to what depths our memories can take us.