Roma, the new movie from Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuarón, may look and sound nothing like Harry Potter, but fans should still check it out.
After premiering at to rave reviews at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma has announced itself as one of the must see movies of the year.
Set in Mexico City during the early 1970s, Roma is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Cuarón’s childhood that centers on a middle-class family clinging to the ways of the past as they are confronted with inexorable change. Following them across the course of a single year, the film chronicles the ups and downs of the family — specifically the matriarch, Sofia, and her family’s housekeeper, Cleo.
When I watched the movie at TIFF last week, I was keen on seeing what, if anything, Roma might have for fans familiar with Cuarón’s adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban. While it may not have much of anything in common with Harry Potter, fans shouldn’t be afraid check it out. Here are three reasons why!
Unique visual style
When Cuarón signed on to direct Prisoner of Azkaban, he was stepping in to fill some big shoes. Director Christopher Columbus, who had directed both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, had already established a distinct visual style for the series. Columbus’ style, one that emphasized the magic and wonder in the wizarding world, felt warm, safe, and inviting. Cuarón upended all of that.
From the very get go, Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban introduced a much darker, more dangerous world. He took the series in a different, more mature direction — letting the series age along with its characters. Yet Cuarón made Prisoner of Azkaban feel real. His attention to detail, from the costume and set design to the introductions of new characters and conflict, made for one of the best (if not the best Harry Potter film).
Roma operates in a remarkably similar fashion. Like Prisoner of Azkaban, Roma looks a lot different than most films audiences watch nowadays. Shot in gorgeous black and white and using long single-take scenes, Roma immerses the viewer in a world that feels, all at once brand new yet achingly familiar. The setting may be new, the style may be different, yet the way Cuarón captures this world makes it feel so intimate, so real, you can’t help but feel apart of it.
Impeccable sound design
I’m such a geek for Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban that I’m even a huge advocate for the film’s rich and dynamic sound design. Before you roll your eyes and skip to the next paragraph, here me out: Unlike the previous two films, in almost every scene in Prisoner of Azkaban, there is something happening in the background of every scene; there’s a fullness to Cuarón’s scenes that make them feel authentic, rather than staged.
Not only that, but the sound design in the film often carries narrative significance. The best example of this is, of course, in the final act of the film when Harry and Hermione use the time-turner to go back and save Sirius and Buckbeack. In the background of this entire sequence is the steady ticking of a clock. Don’t believe me? Go pop your in your DVD, turn your TV up real loud, and find out…
Cuarón’s Roma uses a complex sound design to much of the same effect. Every take, every scene is filled with live; the sound of running water, passing cars, barking dogs, birds singing, phones ringing, waves crashing…The film immerses the audience in this world, fully, often feeling more like a virtual reality than a fiction film.
This attention to detail to how sound design improves a film is a clear strength of Cuarón’s and both Prisoner of Azkaban and Roma epitomize that.
A story about family
The first two installments in the Harry Potter series are arguably stories primarily about friendship. As Harry finds himself thrown into a brand new world after years of not having anyone to depend on, he goes through experiences that teach him the value and strength of friendship. Prisoner of Azkaban pivots in a different direction; while friendship plays a pivotal role in the movie, in the end, it’s about Harry discovering family he thought he’d lost.
The introduction of Sirius Black, a character positioned as the villain at the start of the film, is later revealed to be a kind of family Harry long considered gone. This arc, a welcomed bait-and-switch, is surprising – offering an optimistic warmth to balance out the story’s darker elements.
This is, at its core, the fundamental message of Cuarón’s Roma. Despite the political unrest, the familial divisions, betrayals of the heart, and brushes with violence that the characters in the film endure, the story follows a family making it through this time in their lives together.
The movie interestingly balances the relationship the family has with Cleo, their housekeeper. Cleo is frequently treated as a member of the family; she watches TV with them, goes on vacations, celebrates Christmas, and more. However, the movie makes it clear the way in which Cleo is also kept at an arms distance from them. This dynamic gets at how all families – both the ones we are born into and the ones we choose – come with their own complex issues. This is well aligned to the manner in which Prisoner of Azakban introduces Harry’s remaining family.