by Alan Yudman
ROMA is piling up the awards by the truckload. Critics love it. And there is an ongoing debate about whether or not you “must” watch it on the big screen to fully appreciate it. There is no doubt Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film is an artistic achievement. And I appreciate its art, but I’m not sure it worked for me as well as it has for others.
The film chronicles a year in the life of a family in Mexico City during a time of political upheaval. It centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for a seemingly well-to-do family. At the beginning the father leaves on a business trip to Ottawa (a convenient lie the mother continues to tell their four children to keep up appearances). Cleo grounds the family by just being there as the stable element while the mother seems to slowly fall apart before putting herself back together. She gets herself pregnant early on and has to turn to the mother for help, who makes sure she gets proper medical care.
All of this happens as a youth revolt swirls around the family (if you don’t know the history, here is a Time Magazine article that can give context). The father of Cleo’s baby is a member of an insurgent movement. Characters talk about the political unrest occurring throughout the country. It’s mostly at the fringes of the family, but sometimes it intrudes as when Cleo and the family’s grandmother go to buy a crib and they have to navigate protesters, then gun-wielding insurgents who descend on the store and shoot some innocent shoppers. There are also seeming random natural disasters. An earthquake (I know, by definition random), a brush fire while they are visiting friends for New Year’s Eve (maybe Christmas, it wasn’t really clear to me). At one point, Cleo goes to confront the father of her baby at a camp where he is training with other young revolutionaries. Leading the training is a man named Professor Zovek who was apparently a real person. He is kind of a combo cult-leader/revolutionary/Jack La Lane. He is really quite odd, but engrossing.
I’m sorry, but maybe I just don’t get it. Just like in any year, things happen.. but they also don’t happen. That’s what life is like. Sometimes it is thrilling, sometimes boring. This was more boring than thrilling. There are compelling moments. I suppose that is the point. But for a movie? I don’t know. I don’t mind movies that are thoughtful, or take time getting to where they want to go. But this movie dances around the edges too much. It never really made me “feel” anything until a couple of scenes near the end.
Since movies are a medium that taps most of an audiences senses, let’s talk about the visual and sound. Man, this is an absolutely gorgeous film. The cinematography (by Cuarón himself) is simply spectacular. The shades of black and white that dance across faces and buildings. The way the smoke rises as the fire is first spotted. The dustiness of the revolutionary training camp. The scene on the beach near the end where Cleo saves two of the children. It is all just gorgeous. And I didn’t see it on the big screen. I watched it on Netflix (yes, it’s streaming there since the company produced the movie), but didn’t feel like I was missing anything. If you watch it at home, watch it on a flatscreen TV not your computer. That, I think, would ruin the movie. The sound design complements the visuals perfectly. It is a technically and artistically beautiful film.
That couldn’t save it for me. I get what it is saying. I understand the story Cuarón is telling. It just didn’t move me like other films did this year. Great movie? Absolutely. Worthy of the praise being heaped on it? Maybe. Some have called ROMA “groundbreaking”. Not for me. It is absolutely worth seeing. But, it’s not the best movie I’ve seen in 2018.