Every once in a while, I watch something that breaks parts of me I didn’t know I had. There are rare pieces of art that take pieces of humanity and compose them in a tapestry so fierce and vivid so as to make me feel so spent, and – by feeling what has gone out from me – realize what is there in the first place.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which was released in select theaters last month and premiered on Netflix yesterday, leaves an emotional crater like only a few works of art can. If you’ve heard anything about the film (a clear contender in the coming awards season), you’ve heard that it’s very good. But it’s better than that. It’s better than a film probably has any business being.
I don’t mean that it’s the single best-made film ever, or even this year. Among the defining films of the year, it might not be as entertaining as A Star is Born, as well-acted as The Favourite, or as important as Black Panther. These are things we can debate. Yes, Roma is expertly-made, insofar as it is one of the best-looking, best-photographed films I’ve seen, features superb acting performances, and is a marvel of sound editing, but these are not the things that make it a singular achievement; every year – this one included – a few films reach such heights of craft. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one such film, but the Coen Brothers’ latest project, despite its technical excellence, lacks a certain something which their other films have had, a certain something Roma does have.
With Roma, Cuarón uses technical skill and the brilliance of his actors to deliver a story and experience which puts the audience through a gauntlet of pathos woven into every shot of every scene. Any Hallmark holiday film can generate emotional response from the audience, but only through overt, intentional moments of sentiment – Aw, they worked it out! – Roma so thoroughly immerses the audience in its emotional and artistic aesthetic that the film’s dramatic and mundane moments both feel like the most important thing in the world.
The film centers around Cleo, a housekeeper for a middle-class family in Mexico City, and the story covers a few months in which…well, let’s keep this spoiler-free. Her life changes, as do the lives of the people she lives with and works for. And it’s set against some turbulent times in Mexico’s history. There are dramatic moments in this story, some of which are so intense, so vivid, so visceral, that it defies my description. But these moments are what they are because of the gravitas in the way Cleo collects laundry, the way she turns off the lights at the end of the day, the way she makes sure to grab the dog every time the garage door opens, and even in the way she cleans up that dog’s shit. The poet William Carlos Williams was the master of giving emotional heft to the ordinary and everyday in poems like “This Is Just To Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in which he plucks our heartstrings with a playful message about eating plums and a brief statement about the beauty of a wheelbarrow. I don’t really have much time for Williams anymore after watching Cleo collect and wash the family’s dishes.
But Roma is not so easy on the viewer as to just bid us look at a working-class woman doing her job with care and devotion. We are not permitted to merely look and admire or take pity. The catharsis is not that simple, and “the point,” if I dare use that term, is not that plainly stated. Instead, as we observe Cleo and the family and the city, we are drawn into an emotional climate, a pervasive pathos which immerses the world of the film in big questions and infects the audience with an acute sense of those questions, even if the questions are not explicitly asked.
The result is breathtaking. Life and death circle in a delicate dance that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. The absurdity of materialism is laid bare even as our need for material sustenance is made plain. Our capacity for cruelties both big and small ebbs and flows with the profound love and kindness contained in simple gestures. The remarkable capabilities of humans shine in the most humble places while our absurd shortcomings manifest on the grandest stages. And, from beginning to end, Roma achieves this by showing, not telling. It has a message, of course, but that message is portrayed by a beautiful painting which doubles as a mirror, through a fire and brimstone sermon delivered through a quiet conversation.
In short, Roma reaches into you and pulls you into it, and, without telling you what to think, makes you feel what words fail to conjure. And then, as you dry your tears, you realize you know something new without ever being told.
If it isn’t obvious, I recommend this film. In fact, I demand you see it, especially since it’s streaming on Netflix. Which brings me to one of the other main points of this film, which is the nature of its release. I won’t go into the larger conversation about how and where we watch movies, but I will offer my two cents on the effect of watching this film at home versus on the big screen. I watched it at home, and while I can only imagine wistfully what the visual and visceral experience would have been like in the theater, my experience was that this was one of those films that made me forget where I was. I was so drawn into what I was seeing that it didn’t matter I was watching on a small TV with basic audio. If you can see it in a theater, do it. But, if not, you will be totally overwhelmed in front of your TV or computer, provided that you put your phone away (which most Americans have to anyway because it’s subtitled).
There is one caveat to my recommendation, and that is that I can’t guarantee that you will like this film. Its beauty is great and terrible, and there are scenes which are undeniably hard to watch. It aches, but it’s the good kind of ache. It will make you feel human, and the simultaneous familiarity and mystery involved with that feeling can be uncomfortable. But it will take you someplace few works of art can, and that’s a thrill that’s worth the cost.
So put your phone away for a couple hours and watch Roma. It is an achievement in film-making that becomes more than the sum of its exceptional parts, and a movie-watching experience like few others. It will take your breath away, and, when it does, the simple act of drawing another will seem so sacred. And you won’t know exactly why.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria