Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, the Mexican director's most most personal work, is more impressive as a feat of crowd control than as a piece of visual storytelling or as a character study
The cinema of Alfonso Cuarón is the cinema of immersion. His long takes in Children of Men plunged the audience into the middle of a war zone, while the dynamic camerawork in Gravity allowed us to share Sandra Bullock's panic and disorientation as she's spun off into space. In Roma, the director wants to draw us into his own memories of Mexico in 1971, meticulously recreating the period and filling every inch of the screen with bustling activity. So why does this, his most personal work, keep us at such a distance?
Roma is a tribute to the live-in housekeeper who helped raise Cuarón as a child, with the beguiling newcomer Yalitza Aparicio starring as Cleo, who quietly dedicates herself to the family's four children as their parents' marriage falls apart. Her story is placed against the context of a tumultuous period in Mexican history, with violent clashes between student protesters and the government-backed Los Halcones taking place on the streets and overwhelming Cleo at one critical moment. This sequence is one of two heart-in-the-mouth set-pieces in the second half, but are we gripped because we’ve formed a deep connection with Cleo, or because Cuarón has weaved his undeniable technical virtuosity around easy emotional triggers?
Working as his own cinematographer, Cuarón has opted to shoot Roma in black-and-white, but his images have a grey digital flatness, lacking any expressive use of light and shadow, and his overreliance on lateral panning shots grows tiresome. Roma is more impressive as a feat of crowd control than as a piece of visual storytelling or as a character study; it's a film that’s easier to admire than to fall in love with. Still, it does have plenty to admire, particularly when seen on the big screen, where its ambitiously constructed shots and extraordinarily rich sound design can be fully appreciated. It’s a sad irony then, that the film’s release strategy has severely undermined its main raison d'être.
Released 30 Nov in Curzon cinema, and streaming on Netflix 14 Dec