BEST OF 2018: The Sights and Sounds of ROMA

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As the year rounds itself out, I’m taking a look at some of the best movies 2018 had to offer, many of which (though not all) will land somewhere on my top ten of the year. Some of these are reviews, but many are just some thoughts about what I responded to about the movie and why it stayed with me this year. This is the 12th in a series of entries. The last two were for First Man and Bad Times at the El Royale.

I think this is one of those movies you are either going to respond to in a big way or it may simply leave you cold. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how to articulate my response. I’ve tried and it always feels incomplete. Take, for example, the opening shot of the film.

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Roma begins with a shot of the ground and ends with a shot in the sky. The opening credit sequence — where water intermittently washes dirt and soap away, like a miniature beach shore — has an almost zen quality to it. Eventually, the water settles into a reflection of the sky, occasionally interrupted by more gentle waves before relaxing into a mirror again. In one such reflection, we see the first many signature shots of airplanes flying across, momentarily invading the image and soundscape before disappearing like a memory.

It’s one of the prettiest shots of the year and the movie is just getting started. You either respond to it or you don’t (I talked to a friend who was bored senseless and thought the opening credit sequence went on forever). I could wax poetic about the geometrical shapes (er, the squares) of different shades and ponder what water may symbolize in the movie. But none of this would satisfyingly convey the sense of calm I feel watching something as simple as water — gently and in small waves — washing over a tiled floor, shattering the reflection of the sky before relaxing into it again. Along with other shots in Roma, it makes me think of my childhood (even though The Bronx is a far remove from Mexico City), but I cannot eloquently express why. I just know I could listen to the sound of the water washing and the neighborhood ambiance until I fall asleep.

I could talk about the virtuoso cinematography and sound design (I will be shocked if it doesn’t win the latter), but the technical achievements of the film do not do justice to overwhelming warmth of the film as a whole. It is a piece that can feel cold, clinical and even cruel in moments, but by the end, the sorrow, empathy, joy and love come crashing like a tidal wave — at least it did for me each time I’ve seen it (and I’ve seen it three times now). After my viewing last night, I was a wreck. This is a work where the emotional sum is even greater than its wonderful technical parts. So I’m going to do this a little differently and — with the benefit of its Netflix format — simply share some of the images that stayed with me.


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The above might be the defining image of 2018, the one image I think about most when I think of the movie. And it aches me to think of it because of the one line of dialogue Yalitza Aparicio delivers amid the love surrounding her in the moment. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s devastating.


And just look at the lighting here…

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Part of my love for this movie is it taps into my movie nerdness. Cuaron creates some amazing images with minimal lighting while also playing with extremes within the same frame. And the clarity of the images Cuaron gets in virtual darkness is impressive (it is interesting to read how he pulled off the last shot in particular).


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These last three images are the opposite: flooded with light. And in each one — in context — Cuaron captures purity, tragedy and absurdity.

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There are some beautiful, wide landscapes but this is the saddest and my favorite (and I’m afraid Netflix will come after me if I post too many images).


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I love these two contrasting images. The first portends danger as the glowing embers of fire peak in the distance. The second, surreal in the face of that danger.


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The images are the memories. Roma is a heavily biographical work by Cuaron and I think knowing that actually enriches the film. It’s the shots where very little is happening that end up having the greatest impact because you can substitute yourself within them, steal them from the creator. His memories become your own.

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