There was a surprising moment about halfway through Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma–during one of its multitude of breathtaking cinematic set pieces–when I began to wonder whether the first great wave of VR films will better resemble the director’s previous film Gravity–a world where Hollywood megastars float precariously through oceans of special effects–or will they look more like his comparatively quaint new one, and perhaps be more emotionally engaging as a result. The filmmaker’s latest might be concerned with more humble lives than those of Bullock and Clooney’s shipwrecked astronauts but could it nevertheless be just as applicable to that burgeoning format?
Roma is comprised of a series of richly detailed vignettes, shot in deep-focus, in which the viewer can glance around, pluck out the most vibrant signs of life and thus string the narrative together. Despite the echoes of Fellini, the result feels almost new in a way and given the immersive nature of Roma it doesn’t seem so radical to consider experiencing its cinematic beauty with a clunky headset on. Granted, it’s rather hackneyed to use a term like “immersive” in film criticism these days, but we should note that Cuarón may be chief amongst those responsible for its ubiquity in film marketing.
Indeed, since achieving international acclaim with Y tu mamá también in 2001 (significantly, this is the first film he has made in Mexico and about Mexico since then), the director has built his brand on immersing audiences in places as elsewhere as Hogwarts (Prisoner of Azkaban); a dystopian near-future Britain (Children of Men); and outer space (Gravity). Roma is, relatively speaking, a return to more earthly delights for Cuarón but no less effort has been made by the filmmaker (nor less practical wizardry employed) to offer the viewer a sensory experience of the characters’ lives.
The semi-autobiographical story takes place around Mexico City at the beginning of the 1970s where we find a middle-class family in the early stages of a meltdown. Cuarón tells it through the eyes of the family’s live-in housemaid Cleo (played by the incandescent Yalitza Aparicio). Central and South American filmmakers have often used that tricky relationship as a means to talk about class in their respective societies but with Roma Cuarón seems more concerned with gender roles.
Indeed, Cleo appears genuinely contented with her life and the relationship she has with the family–although things will become more complicated for her when she gets pregnant and her boyfriend bails, a narrative that the director mirrors in the family home where the mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), has also been left to raise the kids alone. Her absent husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a doctor in a Mexico City hospital so we are also made privy to what such a position meant at the time, for both parties involved. Furthermore, we discover that Cleo’s boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is a member of Los Halcones, the CIA trained shock group who were partially responsible for the deaths of over 100 people in the Corpus Christi massacre in Mexico City in 1971.
Cuarón takes perhaps too long to establish these various threads but when he does an incredibly rich sociopolitical image begins to form. The moment in which the director chooses to show the Corpus Christi massacre is when Roma really takes flight, heightening in emotion and drama, a shift that makes the ponderous pacing of the first hour all the more puzzling and unfortunate. It’s also here that Roma begins to make good on all the talk that has preceded its release regarding the sophistication of its visuals and sound design. Photographed entirely in black-and-white by the director himself, Cuarón films most scenes in medium shot with his camera either tracking down a street or slowly panning around a room or exterior, leaving the eye to glance the details of Cleo’s world and pick her story out. The effect distances the viewer from the characters somewhat but the level of immersion almost borders on interaction at times. In one of Cleo’s trips to the movies we’re shown a scene from an old sci-fi B-movie that bears a knowing resemblance to a moment in Gravity–a winking acknowledgement from the director, perhaps, that stories stay the same, even as form and technology move on.
Cleo’s world is indeed a place of tremendous detail–one where men get shot from canons and waves threaten to drag you away–so it is a shame to consider that streaming giant Netflix will be distributing it in the coming months, even if news has recently surfaced that they are considering a rare parallel theatrical release for Roma. One might scoff at such a punt for Oscar consideration but don’t let that put you off from seeing it on the biggest screen possible. Beats a headset, for now.
Roma premiered at Venice 2018 and hits Netflix on December 14.