Int. a nondescript seminar room in a middling-to-good university. The class: Screenwriting 101. The lesson: Show, don’t tell.
It’s the simple but powerful lesson that all new writers are taught, that great storytelling is less about facts and more about feeling. Take a moment and think back across all those great moments in which cinema took you in its arms and held onto you: Rick demanding that Ilsa leave for Lisbon; Fran telling a love-struck Baxter to “shut up and deal”; a tear-smattered Salvatore watching Alfredo’s final reel.
These great moments are not weighed down by redundant exposition; they move us deeply for our simple recognition that the truths of life are here, wrapped up in the crests and cadences of exquisite works of art. At the heart of the old Chekhovian adage is an acknowledgment that truth lies in the smaller gestures and details – a hard decision, a telling tear, a wry joke – that convey with precision the complex nature of our human condition.
It is this degree of greatness that looms on Roma’s horizon. After a string of contemporary classics including Y Tu Mamá También, a superlative Potter entry (Azkaban), Children of Men, and Gravity (for which he won a directing Oscar), Alfonso Cuarón’s status as a modern master is largely undisputed. By now countless words have been dedicated to Cuarón’s frankly dazzling control of the mise-en-scène, mostly in regards to the opening of Gravity or “that shot” in Children of Men. The fact that the quality of Cuarón’s filmmaking is usually mapped onto an array of spectacular moments leaves you somewhat unprepared for Roma’s proportionally quieter power.
In fact, only Y Tu Mamá También really prepares you for Roma’s restraint. That’s not to say that Roma, Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up in 1970s Mexico, is left wanting for moments of breathtaking showmanship. One great sequence sees a forest fire break out on New Year’s Eve. The events unfold from the perspective of a party monster who is wandering through the fray, counting in the New Year as volunteer firefighters around him attempt to tackle the blaze. Cuarón recognises the power of individual responses to large-scale events (see, later, his staging of a riot), and understands that it is in moments of quiet intimacy that we most surrender to film’s capacity to convey the world.
It is through such intimacy that Roma emerges as Cuarón’s masterpiece. Shorn of the dazzling theatrics that make up Gravity’s technically virtuoso display, Roma warmly draws you in to a sublimely constructed universe of feeling. Employing a largely neo-realist approach, Cuarón’s film quickly takes hold; whether it’s with a moment of Arcadian beauty encapsulated in a Mexican pastoral, or in Cleo’s (Yalitza Aparicio) frantic foot chase through the city in pursuit of the children, Cuarón knows how to shoot the hell out of a scene.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing that, for the first time since Azkaban, Cuarón is operating without the aid of friend and regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer responsible for orchestrating much of Gravity’s magnificence. Unhampered by going it alone, Cuarón mines majesty from quotidian details. As it happens, the film’s most affecting moments take hold almost by surprise, enacted through simple sleight-of-hand manoeuvres that demonstrate the work of a master at total ease with his medium.
At the heart of Roma is Cleo, played with both a wide-eyed innocence and solemn stoicism by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. In both its protagonist’s name and in the existential themes that course through it, Roma recalls Agnes Varda’s classic Cleo From 5 to 7. Yet, in its choosing to focus on the life of an indigenous housekeeper over the family she cares for, Roma also brings to mind another classic work, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life.
As with Sirk’s film, which chronicles both the lives of a rising star and her daughter adjacently to the lives of their maid and her daughter, Cleo simultaneously occupies the foreground and peripheries of the middle-class family whom she serves. Against a backdrop of marital breakdown and civil unrest, Cleo suffers personal tragedies of her own along the way, including one sequence that is, quite frankly, devastating.
Just as Imitation of Life makes dynamic use of the width and depth of the mise-en-scène to demonstrate diverging social experiences and film’s tendency to foreground white melodrama at the expense of real tragedy, Roma likewise draws attention to the social infrastructures that determine one’s quality of life. Despite having no reason to doubt the love and appreciation that the children profess for Cleo, we nevertheless view her life as an addendum to theirs. The family’s love for Cleo is absolute, so we do not despise them for their privilege as we might an unappreciative family, but nevertheless we are acutely aware of the dynamic throughout. Roma beautifully conveys the sad reality of the many lives that operate in service of sustaining a quality of life for the middle classes.
Nevertheless, it is to Roma’s strength that Cleo’s story is never reduced to a woe-is-me indictment of the middle class; rather, it emerges as an intersectional, humane, and soul-nourishing ode to the complex ways in which different forms of existence overlap and feed into one another, and how they ultimately sustain one other. At the film’s heart are simple truths: that some people live better lives than others, and that we should be kind and show love to those who make our lives that little bit better. That is Cleo’s story.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 6…
13th – BLACKKKLANSMAN
6th – ROMA
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!