Hubert opened his review of Roma by describing the first shot of the film in detail. I’d like you to go read that paragraph now (heck, read his entire review). He’s so incredibly right about this shot. It practically defines the entire film, setting up a thesis for how the movie will function. Yes, Roma‘s story is touching and incredibly well constructed, but the film also functions as a way to capture a place, a moment, a time. It is Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful cinematography that truly does this far more than anything else in the film. His choices of what to shoot, how to shoot it, and where to place his cameras is the work of a true master, who isn’t just filming a movie but creating a sense of place so strong it’s nearly impossible not to fall into it.
From that slow opening shot, which progressively opens up the world to us, Cuaron plays with his camera impeccably. Obviously, filming the movie in black and white was a bold and striking choice, often forcing the eye to things you would pay no attention to thanks to the stark contrast of his filming, but there are smaller details that make this movie something more. His persistence on allowing the world around the story and characters to fill the frame, and yet somehow, never overtake it is incredible. It makes the movie feel more like a memory you happened to drop in on — we might be focussed on the character of Cleo but the world plays out behind it in every frame of this film.
We can take the student revolution going on in the background of Cleo and Sofia running an errand as the perfect example of the brilliance of this film’s cinematography. Through his shots and incredible use of the camera draws the two threads together without actually stating he is contrasting the two. He is telling an entirely different story simply through the art he has so incredibly mastered. There’s not a wasted inch of screen and not a single misuse of color throughout this film. It’s as if every frame was poured over with exacting detail to make it represented and unfolded the world and story that Cuaron wanted to tell. It is clear just how deeply personal this movie was for the director.
I often have to remind myself that cinematography is not just the use of the camera; not just the technical aspects of being a proficient filmmaker. It is the art of film itself. The very essence of what makes film film. Roma is a reminder of that. It’s not just a masterclass in how to make a movie, it’s a poignant reminder that movies are more than just a series of images flickering past light to resemble motion. When a true artist gets his hands on the camera those images turn into art that reaches past the mechanics and dives deep into the human soul. This is where film becomes art and it is why Cuaron easily takes the Best Cinematography Golden Cage this year.