The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



After winning the Best Director Oscar for his 2013 space adventure Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron goes for something more intimate and personal with Roma. Set in 1970, it follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid working for a wealthy Mexican doctor and his family. Unbeknownst to the children, their parents' marriage is ending. Cleo picks up on what's happening, but she also has her own personal problem to deal with, in the form of an unplanned pregnancy.

There is no formal story to Roma. It's a slice-of-life film, meaning that in lieu of a plot, you simply observe the characters as they go about their daily business. In other words, when the family makes a trip to the movies, you watch as they leave the house and walk all the way to the theater. When Cleo washes the dishes after a meal, you watch her washing dishes. When she tracks down the father of her unborn baby at his martial arts training session, you watch several minutes of people practicing martial arts.

This can be an effective approach, provided the characters are interesting enough to follow through relatively mundane events. The people in Roma don't quite pass that test. The father is quickly shuffled off, the mother is mostly on the fringes of things, and none of the children get anything that could reasonably be called a front-and-center moment. Consequently, it's difficult to feel like you know them, or like you can become invested in their lives, which has the effect of making the observational pace feel extremely slow.

Cleo, meanwhile, is a black hole. A lot goes in, but nothing comes out. She is a very reticent individual, never expressing her feelings on the things taking place around her, never giving much indication of what she plans to do about any of it. Even when something more dramatic does happen to her -- such as getting caught up in a political demonstration turned violent -- the impact isn't nearly what it might have been if we felt more connected to her. The character generally just accepts things and moves on. That's not very interesting from a dramatic point of view. Roma needs its central figure to be more active, to show the emotions that would allow us to feel that we're by her side as she navigates problems. Instead, Cleo just watches everything, and we watch her watching.

Roma is a difficult film to enjoy, although it's an easy one to admire. Every second of it is infused with Cuaron's passion for depicting this way of life. The cinematography, meanwhile, is among the best of the year. The widescreen black-and-white compositions elegantly capture details both big and small. This is one of those films where you could pick any shot at random, put it in a frame, and hang it on your wall as a piece of art. There's also no denying that the picture is ambitious. Every effort has been expended to create a feeling of authenticity, as though it's a documentary and not a work of fiction.

To be fair to Roma, all of this might just be an issue of personal taste. No one could make an argument that this is a "bad" movie. It's not even remotely that. Some audience members will be able to appreciate the tone and mood of the film, and get sucked up in its mournful ambiance. Others will feel something is lacking because of its passive heroine and hazy characterization. They will find Roma a pretty but unsatisfying arms-length experience.

I confess, Dear Reader, that I am in that latter camp.

( 1/2 out of four)

Roma is rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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