In my writeup of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I shared my apprehension about reviewing Netflix-produced features designed to premiere in your living room, a theatrical release being entirely optional. My concerns were that, without having to rush out my review while a film was still in theaters, there would be no urgency in writing it. Those concerns were not unfounded, as I watched Roma more than a month ago, and I'm only finally getting around to reviewing it.
At first, Roma seems like a total departure for Alfonso Cuarón: you sense no technical wizardry here, no 10-minute long takes with the camera flying around in impossible ways. Shot in black and white and set mostly in a middle class house in 1970s Mexico City, Roma seems the very antithesis of Cuarón's blockbusters Gravity and Children of Men. Then comes a scene in which the film's protagonist, an indigenous housemaid named Cleo, takes a walk down the street, and Cuarón's fondness for cinematic extravagance rears its head: you realize that the writer/director must have dressed blocks and blocks of the city to meticulously recapture the Roma neighborhood of his youth.
The film swells with these intricate tableaux, which recede seemingly miles into the background, and with its cast of thousands. From a forest fire to a martial arts camp to a public protest, Roma has an epic, Tarkovsky-like feel to it, and the humble Cleo, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, quietly hovers in and out of the center of it all – a simple woman enduring a personal crisis while Mexico roars around her.
Roma, shot by Cuarón himself, is a feast for the eyes, especially for fans of black and white cinematography. And at its heart it is a touching story, with a winsome performance by Aparicio. The sweeping visuals don't always jibe with the everyday moments, and the film's emotional impact can get lost amidst its teeming crowds. But it's another impressive achievement from a man who seems to produce nothing but impressive achievements.