Review: Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (With a Bunch of Spoilers)

roma movie review

There’s a good reason not many movies, albums, or books ever receive a perfect score. It has to be kept up on the shelf for years, next to the nice scotch that’s almost as old as you are, a bottle that will eventually outlive you, to be enjoyed by whoever gets it in the will.

And when you finally do find a piece of work that deserves a perfect score, it seems obvious. There’s just no alternative. Those cloudy skies open up and it’s Here Comes the Sun all the way to an easy decision.

Roma gets a perfect score because that’s what it deserves. Apart from being one of the most enjoyable movies of the past however long, it’s also the most immediately accessible and useful movie of our time.

It’s a moment of peace, beautiful and temporary, and one that you’ve been waiting for almost your whole life. Or to put it another way, “the world is quiet here.” And you feel dignity so strong and true and profound you don’t understand how you ever could have forgotten that it was there.

Let me explain.

My first impressions of the movie came along when I heard about it through news articles that said this Cuaron movie was tearing up the awards scene over in Europe. They described it as a semi-autobiographical story about life in Mexico City.

Right there, my expectations dropped. Like rock bottom, way down there. I pictured a lovely slice-of-life piece with pretty shots and some solid performances. Maybe three or four nominations come Oscar season, winning one, maybe, then slipping away into the stream of movies that I have forgotten.

And that would be it.

I didn’t watch trailers and I knew nothing about it being slated for a Netflix release. And even now, I know very little about Cuaron’s stated intentions or how the movie came to be made.

In fact, I don’t really want to know the minor details that get repeated across interviews and press junkets.

But I do know this: they got robbed.

cuaron roma review
Image via Netflix

If you’re already familiar with the movie and the political situations within it, then you definitely get the irony that this movie was bullied around by local authorities during production. It’s almost too perfect.

This movie will age like wine (or our metaphorical scotch from earlier), and it will live a long, happy life, and the robbery story will become a permanent, officially sanctioned Fun Fact, whispered like a precious secret at the ends of film classes all over this great nation.

Not to mention, it’s metaphorical gold. Roma is a great movie, and like all great things, the making of it was painful, and beset on all sides by the wicked and the foolish.

The making took decades of practice and multiple failures and big-time triumphs and waiting and waiting and waiting.

I feel lucky that I got to see this movie at all, and lucky that I watched it alone, with no expectations.

From here I’m just gonna go through some of the wonderful or impressive or brilliant things I’ve noticed in the movie so far, and why they make it the best movie of the year or maybe the last five.

Allegory

Animal Farm was required reading in middle school. I was blown away by the fact there was an objective symbolic connection between each character and an aspect of the Soviet Government. Everything meant something.

It had been picked apart over decades, and now we knew exactly what Orwell meant. There was no room for interpretation anymore.

That became a lifelong love of any media that was very clearly an allegory for something else entirely. I think it makes for fun watching, engaging the viewer on a much deeper level while still being enjoyable.

And I’ll be the first to admit that on my first watch of Roma, I didn’t pick up on any allegory. I took it all at face value. It was the shots that caught my attention the first time through, but I’ll talk about that more later.

roma movie review
Image via Netflix

About three hours after my first watch, it clicked. It was like finding a lost puzzle piece under the couch– I wanted to start looking for some more pieces.

The next day I saw the movie in a proper theater and subsequently found a few more pieces. Then I saw it again and realized that it was the first movie that had ever said something honest and true and profound about the Trump Era.

I can see why Fermin had to be nude for the shower rod scene, and why he later mentions the gringo and Korean coaches. And I see why the baby has to die.

This movie means something the whole way through, and it has the comfort of being held in capable hands. Nothing is here by accident. And like so few movies, it actually has something to say.

Visuals

This is a movie made up of long, difficult shots that required immense skill not only on the part of camera operators but also the entire cast and crew, right down to the background extras and the goats. The set design is immaculate, the performances are incredible, and the lighting is some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen on film.

This is a quiet movie that’s showy at the same time. For anyone who knows what goes into making movies, this is a movie that deserves massive respect for what it was able to do and how good it looked while doing it.

It’s the kind of movie that makes us think of all the well-loved classics, and the mythical men (mostly men) who we associate those movies with.

In other words, you know that you’re seeing something great.

It demands your attention in a way that a lot of arthouse films just don’t. And for anyone who goes out of their way to find great movies, that’s special.

roma movie review
Image via Netflix

On a personal level, it reminds me of how I felt when I first saw each of my favorite movies. Specifically, how I felt when seeing Fellini’s stuff for the first time, or Tampopo or Network.

I knew these were the kind of movies I would never get tired of.

And what shows up on the screen during any given frame of ROMA is just perfection.

There are a handful of scenes that carry the same visual weight as a painting by one of the old masters, at least in terms of composition. That just doesn’t happen.

More than once while describing this film to friends or relatives, I’ve said that nothing is supposed to look as good as this movie looks. And I stand by it.

I haven’t done a total shot count so far, but I would believe it if you told me the number was below 100, despite the hidden cuts. On a film geek level, that blows my mind every time. It’s life-affirming to me that anyone cares enough to put that much work into making a movie.

Altruism

ROMA is the film equivalent of service journalism. It’s holding a mirror up to how we all feel right now: simultaneously bored and uneasy, scared and angry, hopeless and strong. It speaks directly to those in a great deal of hurt, offering the smallest glimmer of hope that maybe tomorrow will be a little bit better.

I can’t ask art to do anything more than that. Giving your audience a chance to better process their own difficulties with positivity and optimism is noble work, and when it happens, it’s reason for celebration.

roma movie review
Image via Netflix

A Lifer

We all have our own movies that we’ll bring with us for the rest of our lives, as corny as that sounds.

We all have our own movies that we’ll show to people when they’ve been a part of our lives for long enough.

About halfway through my first watch of ROMA, I knew that it was a lifer, at least for me. It’s gonna stick with me, and I’ll watch it many more times, most likely when I’m feeling down or need to be reminded that there are talented people out there who work hard to make meaningful work.

After all, that’s something I tend to forget.

About Michael J. Schuck

Michael J. Schuck is an LA-based writer, animator, and musician. He watches too many movies and then writes about them for this very website. His first novel, The Incredible Superfets, was published in 2015.

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