You could call Roma the most colorful black-and-white film ever made. After the Centerpiece screening at the 56th New York Film Festival, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón noted how important the visual presentation was to the overall effect of the movie. Crucial among his points was that this black-and-white is “not a nostalgic black-and-white” but instead “modern” and “pristine,” disabusing the viewer of the notion that this tale is unfolding in a long-forgotten place or time. Despite being assured throughout the film that the place is Mexico City and the year is 1971, Roma simultaneously manages to assure you that what’s happening is happening here and now.
You could also single out the production design, the incredible detail in every frame of the film, as a primary contributor to this experience of color in a movie that supposedly doesn’t have any. A sweeping shot of the countryside seems to give off a yellow hue because the lighting is so sunny and natural; muddy brown makes its way into an otherwise cold shot of a discarded action figure and a flattened soccer ball in the garage outside. A rock thrown through a window in one scene leaves a hole that we look through weeks later, and somehow this lasting detail even evokes color in clear glass.
Roma‘s color isn’t the endgame of the film, though, which is to say that Cuarón hasn’t shot his semi-autobiographical ode to Mexico City like this just to show off his chops. After the blockbuster success of Gravity he could have made pretty much anything; during the NYFF screening’s introduction, Cuarón’s friend Guillermo del Toro applauded not only the choice to return to personal filmmaking but the ability to allow the two to overlap. “The tools that you use on the big movies are brought to the intimate movies,” del Toro noted; this is easy enough for anyone to say, but particularly powerful for the Shape of Water filmmaker to note about Roma.
So you could reliably claim that the film’s interpretive qualities are borne of this overlap. Cuarón knows exactly when to hold your hand and when to make you figure it out for yourself, whether “it” is an emotion or a relationship or the ramifications of a larger political movement afoot in Mexico in the early ’70s. Certain moments might even feel intentionally oblique, as with a running gag about a Ford Galaxie that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. There’s a car in The Shape of Water that looks damn similar, a vehicle likely placed there as a metaphorical reflection of its driver. You might feel Roma‘s lingering camera, pointed like a spotlight directly at the car, imploring you to interpret this, remember this, apply it to the larger agenda at work in this narrative…
And indeed you might even uncover a similar thematic thread in Cleo, housemaid and Roma‘s main character. Cleo seems constantly bumped off of her path, either literally (at a New Year’s party by another dancer) or figuratively (through an unexpected pregnancy). Nothing in Roma is quite comfortable, or at least not comfortable for very long. Life intrudes on everything. Even the movie that the family goes to see at the cinema (1969’s Marooned with Gene Hackman, in a cute nod to Gravity) at first seems presented in a pure state, the frame of Roma matching up equally with that of Marooned. But then the sounds of people whispering in the theater and chomping on popcorn start to creep in, as life seems to insist on doing…
You could ascribe these accolades and interpretations to Roma. More accurately: you, with your own memories and experiences, almost certainly will view Roma like this. Cuarón has created something from his own personal experience, but the director’s real achievement is in the creation of something onto which your personal experiences can be projected in a way that’s actually meaningful. “The writing was nearly free association,” he said, admitting that “some things were never revisited…it was an irresponsible process.” Similarly, Emmanuel Lubezki (who shot Cuarón’s Gravity and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman and The Revenant) was scheduled to serve as Director of Photography on Roma before dropping out for another project; he undoubtedly would have had great ideas in line with the visual story of the film. “Roma is not about great ideas, but about respecting the purity of the first impulse,” said Cuarón.
In refusing script edits, choosing not to seek the input of his filmmaker friends, and writing/directing/filming Roma all on his own, Cuarón has successfully revived the assertion of Stanley Kubrick — “one man writes a novel, one man writes a symphony…it is essential that one man make a film” — and he’s done so in an era dominated by blockbuster film-by-committee moviemaking. Instinctual, agendaless, pure and fluid, Cuarón’s meditation on memory is at once historical and relevant, hyperfocused and expansive, colorful and black-and-white. It’s almost painfully ironic: in resisting the urge to perfect Roma, Roma ends up being very close to perfect.