There are possibly many ways to describe Alfonso Cuaron‘s deeply personal film ROMA. And possibly none of them will do complete justice to the staggering cinematic epic that the film is. When someone of Cuaron’s sensibilities decides to focus on the life and times around the childhood of his six year old self, you know how honestly heartfelt it is going to be in everything he zooms into.
Told from the perspective of his nanny Cleo, who is more of a second mother to him and his elder siblings, Roma becomes a moving commentary of how empathy becomes the greatest healing power to triumph over utmost chaos, doesn’t matter what your social strata or economic positioning is. You see this oozing empathy from Sofia or her elderly mother Teresa towards Cleo in her deepest of troubles, and you see the same naturally passed on from Cleo to Sofia and her family when they are suddenly coping with an uncalled for void in their lives, leaving you moist eyed on multiple occasions. Above all, there are these wonderful moments of tenderness between Cleo, little Cuaron and the other siblings which affect you to the core. When Cleo is staring at the vastness of the skies playing ‘I am dead’ with the little Pepe, when she is gently cuddling up with the kids to wake them up in the morning, or when the kids naturally cling on to her insisting on her joining their vacation, you want those terrific moments to freeze on the screen. The film seamlessly transports you to your own childhood on multiple occasions, and you want to breathe and relive all of it once again. Such is the attention to detail in building up the atmosphere and the intricacies of this Mexico City household that soon enough into the film, you get the sense that you have always resided there. You just become an intrinsic part of the family naturally, elevating yourself from being a mere distant observer of this slice of life. Which is a big triumph for the film!
Another striking aspect of the film is the deep symbolism it weaves across frames. So you see flying aeroplanes beautifully captured across scenes that denote the flight of time with nothing much otherwise changing on the surface. You see dog poop soiling the compound everyday, standing for the day to day shit that a middle class household grapples with on a regular basis. You observe how the cycle of life goes on, often in its ingrained cruelty, when the children are just recovering from the shocking news of a broken family while marriage vows are being exchanged in the background of the same scene, or when a disastrous encounter with a father at a cribhouse triggers off a completely unforeseen tragedy for a baby. You see shifting attitudes about life through repeating but contrasting montages of petty mundane activities like parking of cars. You witness similar use of spectacular contrasts in how Sofia tries to cope up with her personal tragedy as well, with her choosing to drown herself in the noise of festivities and crowd rather than sulking alone in the dark. You love how water is used as the recurring motif for deeply layered contrasts – sometimes seen to be sprinkling joy in the life of kids as rain, sometimes cleaning up all the waste that life leaves behind. And then there is the brilliant beach scene where survival soars past the overwhelming waves, with the family holding on to and lamenting over life at the same time. Easily standing tall as the scene of the film, the beach scene also made me reflect how two of the finest films of the year, both Roma and Shoplifters, had their most beautiful moments captured by the beach, shining like golden rays of selfless affection over water.
This has to bring me to the point of how spectacularly Roma is shot overall (again by Cuaron). Each frame is like a love ballad playing out on screen and you can’t help marvel at all the intricately detailed imagery lighting up the screen. Yes, there can be a couple of instances where you may feel that the film is getting burdened by its own epic grandeur of style, but thankfully even in those situations it doesn’t compromise on its soul for the sake of spectacle. Its slow burning poise enhances its feel, its meticulous production design beautifully recreates the period of early 70s, and the pace of its screenplay adds to the unbound empathy that Cuaron wants all of us to deeply feel. As a masterstroke, he picks up a completely new and non-pro cast to play out this part of his childhood, and none of them pull him down. Yalitza Aparicio is sensational as Cleo. Her simplicity roots her to the spirit of the character she plays and her craft highlights all her emotions to make her journey deeply engaging. She is wonderfully supported by Marina de Tavira as Sofia, and the two women stand rock solid as pillars of personal strength for each other irrespective of the professional relationship that they share. All the children win hearts in their own ways but special shoutout to Marco Graf who plays the six year old Cuaron or Pepe in the film. Just like Cleo, I felt like cuddling up to him every single time he came on screen.
With all this and more, Roma is a shining testimony of the strength of Alphonso Cuaron’s craft of ultimate visual storytelling. It deeply sucks you in, and traps you inside the chaotic life and times of a lively and likeable family of the Roma district, and you just want to live with them in their warmth, forever!
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