The Flow of Life in Roma

There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma.  There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast).  The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way).  We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism.  It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.

But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec.  Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose.  The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer.  The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film.

Yet, oddly, the viewer can only feel at a distance, passively watching the intimate explosions, wishing we could learn as much about the characters as the director Cuaron seems to be telling us about himself.  “Behold, my childhood nanny and flawed saint!” he proudly shows us.  “Look, that old sci-fi movie Marooned I saw as a kid in this big old Spanish gothic movie theater in the city is what made me want to make Gravity!” he winks.  It’s this type of hyperbole mixed with personal minutiae that leaves Roma straining to be loved…from a distance, through a perfectly framed lens showcasing a beautifully framed shot that drips…flows…moves, and occasionally overwhelms.  I want to love.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

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5 comments on “The Flow of Life in Roma

  1. Arti says:

    David,

    This is my first time reading your post and I’m amazed that we both pick the water motif. I don’t know whether you’ve read other reviews if this significant element has been noted by others. As I try not to read other people’s views before I write my own, I don’t know the answer to my query. But hey, if the film does come to your local theatre, finding a nanny just for that night’s out with your wife might turn into an ‘engulfing’ experience. 🙂

    • Arti – I hadn’t noticed anyone else mention the water motif in the few snippets I glanced at before watching the review…but others have to be talking about it, right? It wasn’t subtle…at least I didn’t think so. I absolutely loved the water dripping from the drying clothes when Cleo and Pepe laid on the roof “playing dead.” I also thought the foreshadowing re: the baby was very heavy-handed, too. But I honestly enjoy a little heavy-handed foreshadowing.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Great review David, though I am not sharing the debit aspects you speak of. I count this as a flat out Felliniesque masterpiece, beautifully acted and filmed and with a captivating and poignant grasp of a period when gender relations and social status took center stage. It is epic yet intimate and poetic.

    • Sam – moments from Roma keep percolating in my mind a week later…but I still have the same issues with it I had initially…yet those are minor issues when compared to all of its wonders. With that being said…it’s shaping up to be a strange year end for me…Lean on Pete might actually be in the lead for film of the year…though If Beale Street Could Talk still needs to be experienced before I render any Top Ten.

      • Sam Juliano says:

        LEAN ON PETE is my #1 film of the year!!! And it has been a very strong year! 🙂

        Yes you must see Beale Street indeed!

        Not yet sure how I will order my list but there are presently 11 films contending for my Top 10:

        Lean on Pete; Roma; The Shoplifters; Burning; The Favourite; Mary Poppins Returns; The Rider; At Eternity’s Gate; If Beale Street Could Talk; The Hate You Give; Cold War

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