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Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a masterpiece, operating at the highest possible levels of artistry of storytelling and technique. Let me join the global chorus of critics urging you to see it at the cinema as it enjoys a “special theatrical run” before landing on Netflix, where it will remain brilliant, but lose its grandeur. This is a milestone of a movie, an epic, an event.
Cuarón is one of the world’s great visual directors: just witness Gravity and Children of Men, both of which were shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzki, who is, I understand, considered by many cinematographers to be their finest living peer. On Roma, Cuarón is his own cinematographer, and his work in this department is astonishing. Formally constructed in black and white widescreen, most sequences in the film begin with or prominently feature substantial tracking shots filled to the brim with action on multiple planes, all contributing to a portrait of the film’s central setting, Mexico City in 1970, as vibrant and energetic and often chaotic and wild. Incredibly intriguing details – a human cannonball, relentless aircraft, marching bands – constantly fill in the greater depths of the frame, cascading upon each other and providing us with multiple layers of meaning, for the film we are watching is both minutely autobiographical and intensely poetic. Everything we see is from Cuarón’s own childhood, but poured into the richest two hours and thirteen minutes of the year; if events, at times, seem almost too dramatic to be true, that’s because we’ve made the deal to witness them as a movie, and Cuarón’s agreed to condense them.
Roma is the story of a year in the life of Libo, Cuarón’s nanny (and one of his household’s two maids) when he was a boy. It was a dramatic year for both Libo and the household, and Cuarón has stated that he wrote the film from direct memory, then sought to re-create those memories as authentically as possible. Thus, he sourced almost all the furniture in the house in the film from relatives of his scattered around Mexico; whenever possible, scenes were shot where they actually took place; and he and his extraordinary production design team have strived to make every single moment look as close to the memory in Cuarón’s head as possible. The result is breathtaking: the performances and design are grounded in absolute realism, while the cinematography is artful and precise. This gives the film a true timeless quality; were someone to show it to you in 2028, I’d wager you’d have no real way of guessing, to the nearest ten years, when it was actually made.
The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand-in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.
Thanks to the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, where I was able to see Roma in its essential environement: the cinema.