The following review is part of our coverage of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
There are many reasons to consider investing the time, money, and energy into seeing a film on the big screen. Maybe you’re a film buff who thinks it’s still the best (and possibly, the only true) way to properly appreciate the art form. Maybe you just like the experience. Maybe you’re even a bit of a snob, and you consider anything less than the optimal sound, venue, and size of screen to be an affront to the film projected upon it. With Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA, though, there’s another reason that you should consider going out of your way to see it in a theatre when it’s released on Netflix later this year: if you watch this gorgeous, sprawling work of cinema on anything smaller, you run the risk of missing all sorts of delightful — and sometimes gut-wrenching — details.
On the surface, ROMA is a simple (albeit heartfelt) semi-autobiographical reflection of the life of a middle-class family in the Roma district of Mexico City in the early 1970s. Their beloved maid, Cleo (a quietly heartrending Yalitza Aparicio), has recently found out that she’s pregnant and is subsequently abandoned by her selfish boyfriend. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the matriarch of the family, soon finds herself and her children in a similar situation when her husband casually disappears to start a new life for himself. Facing down single motherhood, the two women forge some new sort of semblance of family, together.
There is a lot more to this lovely, relatively low-stakes found family drama, however, both on the fringes of the action onscreen and in between what’s actually said aloud by the characters. Every frame, every moment is loaded with hints and meaning extending well beyond what’s clearly evident at first.
This begins with the delightful details in the margins of Cuarón’s stunning black-and-white photography. There’s some bouncing hail here, some bird mating there, and a beautiful, near-constant flow of nature and people drifting around in the background, lending an almost dreamlike state to the proceedings. Even the act of trying to cram a massive car into a narrow garage becomes an engrossing cinematic experience in ROMA’s universe. (There’s also, in a far less understated but no less fascinating moment, a pretty good nude martial arts demonstration, with a broken curtain rod tossed into the mix at one point.)
Eventually, those same fine details start to creep into the dialogue and the character interactions. Allusions to political strife begin to pepper the domestic staff’s conversations. Sofia’s previously steely countenance crumbles when she embraces her husband for what at least a part of her must suspect is the last time. Cleo’s face, half-lit by a movie screen, falls apart in much the same way as she realizes that her boyfriend isn’t coming back for his jacket, or for her, after she tells him she’s pregnant during a movie date.
Slowly, subtly, the visuals and the subtext of ROMA start to piece together, growing more dense and more intriguing by the scene. Then the events of the Corpus Christi massacre erupt in the background, in heart-stopping and haunting (but never exploitative) detail, forcing everything to the surface and propelling all of the film’s carefully nurtured developments into an explosive and absolutely devastating final act. It’s a lot to take in — and does, arguably, veer close to histrionic melodrama, especially compared to how understated the work is in its earlier scenes — but there’s not a single moment of it that hasn’t been earned in every rich shot and character moment along the way.
With both great affection and great clarity, Cuarón has transformed the influences of his own childhood into a nuanced and reflective chronicle that manages to touch on political upheaval, class inequality, gender inequality, life, and death while still remaining firmly grounded in the intensely personal bond between its main characters in their day-to-day existence. ROMA is both visually and emotionally arresting, grandiose and intensely intimate all at once. By capturing and exploring Cleo’s individual life with such vision and thoughtfulness, he has managed to piece together a sweeping interpretation of life itself. It’s definitely something that requires a big screen to absorb in its entirety.