Roma ★★★★½

The impetus of the Italian neo-realism movement was a rejection of opulence. The state-made films of WWII Italy are, frankly, quite terrible and disgusting. Mussolini wanted to fund film projects that celebrated heroism and fascist values, often featuring lavish sets and propagandistic depictions of the glorious Italian state. When Mussolini's regime was toppled, Italian directors wanted to take things in another direction. Instead of focusing on singular hero narratives, filmmakers like Rossellini and De Sica decided to focus on the everyperson to tell smaller slice-of-life stories that reflected the reality of living in an under-repair Italy in the late 1940's.

Alfonso Cuaron's latest doesn't have a state propaganda machine to respond to. But maybe Roma is a confrontation of the bloated unreality portrayed in so much of cinema today. Between the increasingly corporate, soulless nature of the blockbuster to the formalistic tinkering happening in much of cinema's underground, it seems like audiences are less and less interested in reality and humanity. Escapism and wild experimentation make for damn fine films; some of my favorites of all time in no way portray the world as it could feasibly be. But maybe we need films like Roma every once in a while to ground audiences, to remind us what the true bleeding spirit of our existence looks like.

Set in a gorgeously rendered early 1970's Mexico City, this film follows housekeeper Cleo and the family she's employed by. I worry that many viewers will find this to be the "most boringest movie ever" because of its slow pace and non-traditional plotting. To say that, though, is to ignore Cuaron's intention and the true beauty of this film. To watch Roma is to absorb every feeling these people have ever felt, to consider the deep bonds that make having people in our lives at all worth it. If this movie tried to have an overarching story in a more traditional sense, it would lose its identity all together. I was far more invested in watching characters go about their day and complete errands than I was in so many movies this year that moved a lot more quickly. That's not to say nothing at all happens, as there are plenty of extremely memorable scenes and situations that further enrich the world and arcs of these characters. I just think that Roma's true brilliance is in how Cuaron lets his characters breathe and live their lives.

Cuaron sculpted this film from experiences in his own childhood, with that tender love and nostalgia for his past being palatable in every frame. The attention to detail is astounding, creating perhaps the most complete vision of time and place I've seen in a film all year. Everything from the clothes to the architecture to how every single extra seems to have a specific purpose brings this world to full-colored life. And that's with black and white photography, which is just gorgeous. This isn't like a lot of movies where the black and white feels cheap and underbaked, an excuse for an aesthetic exercise practiced for no reason other than "I like black and white." Cuaron's camera work is breathtaking in its ultra-wide framing and massive scope. The black and white serves to further the intimacy and loving care for a time that will never be again. I truly think that putting this in color guts the film of much of its power.

That love and care for every molecule extends into his character work. Apart from the children characters (not to discount their performances, I just don't think that they were differentiated enough from one another), Cuaron gives every character a clear definition and value set. By the end of the film, you know these characters inside and out, and their love for one another is the last possible thing one could doubt in the entire world.

What I know for sure right now is that I want to live in the experience of watching this film forever. Movies can make me feel cynical or tired or even happy, but I want to revel in the closeness and tenderness of 1970's Mexico City for a long time. With Roma, Cuaron has created an intimate epic, the kind of movie that hasn't been made in 50 years because almost no filmmakers are willing to try hard enough. No other film will be as warm or lovely in 2018.

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