Roma movie poster
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Roma
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Roma Movie Review

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD (Buy on Amazon)

There are two ways to watch Roma: 1) on Netflix while browsing Instagram on your phone; 2) on Netflix without any distractions. Option 1—presumably the way the majority of curious movie fans will absorb Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar hopeful—will result in you scratching your head wondering what the big deal is. Option 2—certainly the way Cuarón optimistically envisioned when he agreed to make a movie with Netflix—will allow you to appreciate the craftsmanship of the filmmaking and nuanced storytelling on display.

But you still may question whether Roma lives up to the massive hype.

(and yes, there is a third option, which is to see Roma at one of the very select theaters it is playing in, but those theaters will be filled with snobby cinephiles who refuse to accept that this is a Netflix movie that 99% of people will watch on Netflix a week later)

I watched Roma, a black-and-white subtitled drama set in 1971 Mexico City, with the intention to watch it unencumbered by my laptop or smartphone. I succeeded, for a while, until my short attention span wavered and I succumbed to the delights of my phone. I finished Roma and shrugged.

But Roma is a serious contender for an Academy Award because, you know, voters and critics [rightfully] love Alfonso Cuarón and apparently anything he touches. Oh, and black and white movies because it’s artsy.

So I watched it again, start to finish, without barely looking at my phone, and as I turned it off from the comfort of my own couch—yes, the way Roma is meant to be seen, because it’s a Netflix movie—I realized how much I missed, how much care and heart Cuarón put into this picture, how much heart the movie has.

Roma looks amazing, as you’d expect from a craftsman such as Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The cinematography is to die for, Cuarón taking what is essentially a quaint story about a housemaid and turning it into a living and breathing organism. From the opening moment, in which water swirls down a drain, to the breathtaking climax as he pans back and forth across an ocean beach, Cuarón delivers technical achievement after technical achievement.

And yet Roma sometimes gets away from him, Cuarón clearly so enthralled by camera angles and panning shots that he forgets what kind of movie he’s trying to make. A few scenes reminded me of Paranormal Activity 2, where the camera pans back and forth inside of the house as you wait for something to happen. In one scene, in which protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lays on a rooftop, her eyes closed, Cuarón pans away to focus on laundry hanging from wire—to what end, perhaps not even he knows.

Though many have described Roma as Cuarón’s most “personal” movie to date, it oddly keeps Cleo’s plight at arm’s lengths. While Aparicio’s performance draws you in and makes you a companion on her journey, Cuarón seems much more concerned with the cinematography and visual metaphors—after Cleo informs her boyfriend that she is pregnant, the movie playing in the background depicts a plane crashing from the sky, foreshadowing if ever there were foreshadowing—then tapping into the emotional core of his subject. Much of the film is physically removed from Cleo’s presence; rarely does the camera move in close, opting instead to depict this woman as just a figure piece on set, lost among the fervor of other lives.

As well made as Roma as is, as powerful as certain moments are, as nuanced and elaborate and beautiful as it is, it doesn’t grip you the way you’d expect, the way it needs to. Roma is good, but while you sit at home, your phone inching to be looked at, is it great enough to demand your undivided attention?

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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