Of all of the movies that I have had to write about this year, I never would have expected Roma to be the hardest. Not because movies can’t stir up complex feelings and make it tough to wrestle them down in print, but because Roma is a very simple film. Alfonso Cuaron drops us into a slice of life mainly based on his memories growing up in Mexico. A housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is the live in help of a family headed by Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and her nearly always absent husband. In between cleaning dog poop off the driveway and growing her relationship with a young man from the country, Cleo’s time is full. However, things being to spiral when she discovers that she’s pregnant, Sofia divorces her husband, and the rising tensions in the country begin to bubble over.
It’s hard not to be won over by the way Cuaron marshalls all of the various technical elements that make up a film to tell his story. The cinematography is stunning, and not just because of the choice to shoot this on film in black and white. There’s a painterly quality to the image, with everything having been carefully placed, each shot moving or staying static with a grace that belies the story. That he can put so much in the frame and still get his point across shows what kind of talent the man has (I mean he does have an Oscar for directing). More impressive than the image is the sound. Oh how glorious this movie sounded! The movie was done in Dolby Atmos, which Cuaron noted rightly that even though most blockbusters use it, the completeness of sound can actually be more intimate. The visual and aural elements of this routinely attempt to immerse you in the story.
Why then was this movie so boring to me? It’s puzzling because I count myself among the people who don’t care how long a movie is (my love for Gone with the Wind and Titanic is well documented), I love foreign language films, and it was quite nice that we saw a movie that didn’t rely on crazy twists (this movie does have a few gasp worthy moments though). This confusion I have to lay at the feet of Cuaron and his choices. Cuaron is an auteur in his own right, and as such puts his stamp on his own life’s story. But in doing so, he never picks the stamp up, too often letting shots linger fat longer than they are interesting (how long do we need to see dog poop on the ground?) or needing extra flourishes (why is someone singing during a forest fire?). In these moments, the movie created a schism for me from watching “real life” to a Movie, and throws off the balance. Rather than be enthralled by them, I started to feel the time they were taking. This might have not been so noticeable in the end had it been one or two, but the movie has so many “but here’s more” and “look at this, focus here” moments that it limps towards the ending. After being jerked around by at least three possible endings, I left the movie feeling bereft of the elegy he seemed to be wanting to channel in the film. It’s such a shame too, it really was a beautiful picture.