Life is messy, scripted as it proceeds minute by minute. Plans are made but broken by the unintended; rarely do plans ever come to any kind of satisfying fruition. All around us are people walking the same insane, hectic path the world leads us down. We either fight it or we become part of it, hopefully to change the path from within, but mostly becoming one with the path, no matter how we struggle against it.
Regardless of what we’re told, people aren’t usually extreme to one side or the other; they’re just normal, sweet people you’ll see in your house or on your walk to your office. Life isn’t always full of high interpersonal conflict and backbiting.
Sometimes, life just is.
It’s as simple as waking a child in the morning with a song, or a soft-boiled egg cracked into and eaten for that day’s breakfast. Or it could be as complex as a husband and wife on the outs with four children in the balance. It can be as terrifying as an unexpected pregnancy, with the once-passionate sperm donor (I am loath to say “father,” because it’s a term which implies an acceptance of responsibility) fleeing when faced with this news. Yet, life can be as joyous as a family on a beach together, desperately holding onto each other to lift everyone up and renovating the remains of their shattered existence.
Our eyes are open with our minds inferring the would-haves, could-haves, should-haves, or memories everywhere we glance. These cuts and edits take place only in our imaginations; our visual field remains uninterrupted, allowing us to take in everything all at once. We instantaneously appreciate, assess, and appraise what lies before us, taking stock of everything before using and enjoying what we have at hand or discarding what we don’t need.
All throughout, though, life is a wondrous, rapt experience; so, too, is Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma. Considering it a personal love letter to his upbringing, Cuarón has wrought a film entirely of the natural, using very basic camera movements and sound to tell his story. Adornments of modern cinema are stripped away to its very bones, focusing only on the tale being woven by a family caught up in both internal and external upheaval.
Life merely unfolds before his naked lens, allowing his actors’ skills to transform his script’s simplicity into a living, breathing film. The camera’s motion consists of no more than left/right pans, up/down tilts, and smooth – not shakycam – tracking shots, capturing his subjects and their surroundings in the most involving way possible. Handheld, crane, and helicopter shots do not have any place in this film; Cuarón, also serving as cinematographer, keeps our view at eye level, constantly immersing us in our lead character Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the events which kick this film from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Lending authenticity to Roma is Cuarón’s use of long-take single shots, staying in the moment and often staying past it to allow events to resonate. His previous films all feature at least one of these long takes – yes, even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – to similar effect, but none quite like how Roma affects the viewer. Editing (credited to Cuarón and Adam Gough) is minimal, with very few cutaways during a scene to change perspective. These cuts are most notable in high tension scenes, like those found between Cleo and her lover Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), or during a depiction of Mexico City’s Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971. Even then, the cuts are kept to a minimum to enforce this film’s stark realism.
In the sound department, all you’ll hear is diegetic noise and dialogue – meaning there is no score or music coming from an unseen source. Every bit of music is heard via a radio, record player, musical instruments, or voice. The sounds of the city and the random conversations swirl about the theater speakers, providing vibrance and giving voice to the heartbeat of Roma – its inhabitants. One of the film’s most startling scenes plays off of reactions to the Corpus Christi Massacre happening outside a store’s windows; the terror of crashing glass, unexpected gunfire, and horrifying screams are heard without any further dramatic underpinning. In another example of how the film flips our expectations around, a piece of heavy action is “scored” by a man suddenly stepping into view and singing.
But the centerpieces of this film are the completely human, worn performances by every actor involved, to the point where you sometimes doubt you’re watching a work of fiction. Without them, or with anything exaggerated or more underplayed, this film falls apart. However, Cuarón has directed them to an ethereal space where each actor’s own subtleties and natural light illuminates, calms, or burns the scene with nuanced intent. Aparicio is a revelation, playing Cleo with the practiced, repetitive mannerisms of a beloved house servant who’s treated more like family than a maid. The rest of the actors follow suit; I wouldn’t say they’ve slipped into their roles like a second skin, though. Instead, they transform, beguiling and entrancing us with the love of close-knit family, the fury of cowardice, the hopefulness of romance, and the fear of the unknown approaching with its knives at the ready.