Roma, despite garnering much praise and awards, was something I had been meaning to see for a while now, but somehow never did. This is far from the only film I’ve inexplicably postponed watching, but it especially stuck out to me because of who was directing it. Having only seen Alfonso Cuarón’s more conventional work (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Gravity), I was curious to see how he would do making something much more “artsy” and offbeat, even if he had (probably) already gone there with 2006’s Children of Men. The answer: extremely well.
Cuarón’s vision of a tense, yet low-key 1970s Mexico is a truly stunning one. Rather than being distracting or gimmicky, the B&W cinematography, frequent wide shots, very long takes, and complete lack of music only heighten the rich sense of atmosphere he brings to this film. Even without ever being to Mexico myself, watching this film made me feel like I was there, walking right among the expansive houses, the old-fashioned cars, the dirty roads, the large marching bands, the policemen all lined up in a row.
So from a visual perspective, Roma is obviously a masterpiece. From a narrative perspective, it is almost—almost—just as good. Ironic, then, that at first, there isn’t much plot to speak of at all.
A central story about a gradually disintegrating family and their struggling indigenous maid is present, but Roma mostly discards any traditional structure in favor of a slow, methodical series of beautifully crafted slice-of-life vignettes. Most of them are gorgeous and memorable, but some (particularly a scene involving a wildfire) admittedly verge on tedious and unnecessary.
Making up for these minor missteps is the powerful, soul-shattering climax, which intensely focuses on all the characters’ deeply buried personal troubles. Inevitably—and sometimes even violently—spilling over, the gut-punch twists they deliver are emotionally devastating, but never feel anything but genuine, with not a single emotional moment feeling unearned or overly melodramatic. Even if you find the rest of the film excruciatingly boring, it’s worth sticking through just for that.
In any case, though, whether you ultimately like Roma depends on what kind of a viewer you are. If you’re a more patient person who loves character and setting-focused films such as The Last Picture Show and Boyhood (as I do), then you will very likely treasure this film. If you’re not, then you probably won’t, but at least give it a chance.