In Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal ‘Roma,’ every moment a masterpiece
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We go to the movies for so many reasons.
We go to the movies to laugh. To escape. To keep the little ones occupied for 90 minutes of animated adventure. To be frightened. To root for an underdog. To Marvel at a superhero.
Sometimes, though, we go to the movies hoping to see something so special, so beautiful, so vivid, we’ll never forget it for all our days.
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is just such a film.
From the seemingly simple but almost hypnotically engrossing first shot through the final fadeout, there is something timeless and near-magical about this movie, whether the focus is on a relatively mundane domestic vignette, or stunning, life-altering events.
You know that feeling when you’re watching a particular scene in a movie, and everything just clicks?
“Roma” is an entire film of such scenes.
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Cuarón has displayed great versatility and vision with films such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006) and “Gravity” (2013), for which he won the Oscar for best director. With “Roma,” he gives us a deeply personal 1970s period piece inspired by his own childhood in Mexico — and yet there’s a universality to the characters and their stories, their triumphs and tragedies. It’s amazing how quickly we get to know the main players, and how deeply we become attached to their stories.
“Roma” is set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970 and 1971 and features some eccentrically wonderful, time-specific footnotes, e.g., a New Year’s Eve party where Yvonne Elliman’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” is on the turntable.
But the stunningly gorgeous black-and-white visuals (Cuarón acts as his own cinematographer) also are reminiscent of mid-20th century classics by De Sica and Truffaut and Fellini. (Black-and-white is the shorthand, but my goodness does this film pop with gorgeous silvers and charcoals and grays and so many other shades.)
The story revolves around the occupants of a comfortable middle-class home, with the primary focus on the housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a non-actress making a spectacular film debut) and Cleo’s employer, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mother to her four children. Her often-absentee physician husband (Fernando Grediaga) tends to his career and certain other interests, with his wife and children almost an afterthought at times.
Cleo and another maid, Adela, spend their long days in the house, cleaning and cooking and looking after the children and periodically hosing down the driveway. (The family dog has a habit of leaving some major deposits right in the path of the doctor’s car.) At night, they retire to the tiny cottage apartment they share on the property — but even then, they must take great care not to upset the lady of the house, who will scold them for wasting electricity if they keep the lights on too late.
Ah, but Cleo has a life beyond her work, as evidenced by her romance with a charming but perhaps not altogether reliable martial-arts fanatic (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who will play a pivotal role in a couple of key moments in Cleo’s life. Yes, she lives in a class-conscious world and is sometimes reminded of her place in harsh fashion, but she is young and full of life, and still optimistic about the future.
“Roma” moves at a deliberate pace, giving us just the right measures of time and space to absorb the subtle and not-so-subtle class differences between the household help and their employers, but also the increasingly strong bond between Cleo and Sofia, especially after they both go through some heartbreaking trials. They are strong, resourceful women who fell for weak, selfish men.
The intimate domestic storylines unfold against the backdrop of tumultuous social strife in Mexico City — but the political unrest marches straight to the forefront of Cleo’s and Sofia’s lives on a June day when a student protest turns tragically violent. (Though told through the eyes of fictional characters, this sequence is based on real-life events. Police killed 25 student protesters in what would become known as the Corpus Cristi massacre of 1971.)
Cuarón’s camerawork is alive and dazzling but never intrusively attention-getting. Sometimes we ride along with tracking shots teeming with urgency; on other occasions, there’s a perfect stillness to our point of view.
“Roma” has moments of small grace, as when Cleo is hanging the laundry to dry on the rooftop and takes a break to join one of the children who is playing dead, the tops of their heads touching as they close their eyes and soak up the sun.
Other times, the story goes big and almost surreal, e.g., when a forest fire erupts during an extravagant holiday party, or when ferocious ocean waves threaten to swallow and extinguish some very young lives.
Cuarón’s artistry yields a film with the pinpoint authenticity of a docudrama, but also the intoxicating and lyrical poetry of memories as filtered through a perfect dream.
Sometimes we go to the movies and we’re rewarded with a masterpiece.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. No MPAA rating. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 135 minutes. Opens Thursday at Landmark Century Centre and Dec. 14 on Netflix.