Each Frame Is Alive.
The main goal of cinema, as an art form, is to convince you that what you are watching is real. Everything within the frame must work together to create this illusion, and Alfonso Cuarón is a master technician, applying meticulous skill and craftsmanship to his frames, breathing endless life into even the most passive of shots. Every time I watch a Cuarón film, I can tell I am watching the work of an entire team who believes in the product and has poured their hearts into every facet of the production.
Even more so than his previous works, Roma is a labor of love, feeling every bit as personal a story as it must intend to, with Cuarón serving as his own cinematographer and editor. We see and truly feel every emotion on the spectrum. The film defines “slice of life,” using a small lens to focus on a big idea. We may be watching one family (parents, children and the caretaker who holds it all together), but we are also watching a major city in the background, as the camera is always slowly on the move and the frames busily rushing by, a constant reminder of how much bigger life is than we often realize. There is no musical score, but neither is there one in life, and make no mistake, this film is absolutely alive. It breathes, pulsates and takes form right in front of your eyes, and moves at a pace that allows you to study it on the level it deserves. The sound design is impeccable, with environmental sounds moving from speaker to speaker, doing ever more to bring this world to life. Cuarón had mastered the slow, tracking shot and the long take (and no, reading about scenes that stitched shots together in post production to add to the effect doesn’t take anything away from it, at least from where I’m sitting), creating a hypnotic effect that keeps you glued to the screen, even when very little is happening from a narrative standpoint. The shots achieved in this film are, simply put, painstakingly rendered and breathtaking to behold.
The acting is entirely authentic. In her debut acting role, Yalitza Aparicio is as real as it gets, commanding the screen quietly as she does with the family she works for, always keeping everything together despite the roadblocks and setbacks. It doesn’t feel like acting at all, and maybe that’s because it isn’t. She is the faceless woman in the crowd, often overlooked even by those close to her. She is one drop of water in the ocean, but she is capable of making waves, a metaphor executed beautifully in the film’s closing moments. It is her tireless effort that binds all that we are seeing, much like her character Cleo goes through life doing all the hard and dirty work that keeps the family going, even (and especially) when it is gritty and thankless.
This is the kind of film that unravels slowly, but the emotional rewards register far more for this approach. Acting as an ode to his own childhood and family, Cuarón invites you to consider your own, in all the beautiful and minute detail your memory can muster. It is a sweeping tide that will swallow you up like sand on the shore before depositing you back somewhere else and slowly retreating, leaving you changed and open to a world that contemplates subtlety. I am thrilled I was able to catch this on the big screen and cannot wait to watch it again at home, close to some people I can hug for a long time afterward.