Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, “Roma,” gives you so much to see in each new vignette, in every individual composition, in fact, that a second viewing becomes a pleasurable necessity rather than a filmgoing luxury.
Great, you think. This time of year, I barely have time to see a movie once let alone twice, even with all the infernal quality currently on screens (“The Favourite,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, “At Eternity’s Gate,” “Burning,” etc.) making demands of my bandwidth. I’ll just plop this one in my Netflix queue. (“Roma” streams on Netflix starting Dec. 14.)
The counter-argument to that lament is pretty simple: “Roma” rewards your time, beautifully. It moves with implacable assurance, at times nearly losing its characters inside writer-director-cinematographer Cuaron’s boggling, fastidiously packed widescreen frames, photographed digitally in 65 millimeter black and white.
Time will reveal whether it’s a masterwork with qualifying asterisks or a masterwork, period. This much is true: “Roma” casts a spell and re-creates a specific time, place and collection of personal memories in ways that will connect, I suspect, with millions.
The story takes place in 1970 and 1971 in Mexico City, and in other parts of Cuaron’s homeland wracked by societal unrest. The unrest inside one particular home, and family, becomes the microcosm for those larger forces. The title refers to the Colonia Roma district where Cuaron grew up, and he dedicates the picture to the nanny/housekeeper who helped raise him at a particularly wobbly time in the future director’s life.
The fictional version of that caregiver, Cleo, is played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, a schoolteacher who never acted professionally prior to “Roma.” Her warm, steady presence becomes the flame for the episodic yet magically fluid narrative.
Cleo is of Mixteco Mesoamerican background, one of countless villagers who work for families like the one in “Roma.” The children of Cuaron’s fictionalized family are secondary; this is a tale of two mother figures, the other matriarch being Sofia (Marina De Tavira), whose boisterous upper-middle-class household accommodates four kids, one grandmother, one endlessly defecating dog, some caged birds and a conspicuously absent father.
Father, Sofia tells her children, is away on business in Quebec. In reality, he’s in Acapulco with his mistress. While this is going on, Cleo, who works for the family along with fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), loses her virginity to a tense, explosive young man (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) devoted to martial-arts training and unconcerned with Cleo’s surprise pregnancy. The young man seems like a warrior searching for a war. That war arrives in one of the film’s most elaborate vignettes, a re-creation of the bloody 1971 Corpus Christi attack on student demonstrators.
Cuaron imagines this particular historical incident at a remove, from the vantage point of a second-story window of a department store. “Roma” is hardly devoid of telling close-ups, but as Cuaron told one interviewer: “I was interested to observe those moments at a distance without a judging eye.” We follow the family to an eventful New Year’s Eve spent with relatives in the country, where the government is seizing land at will, and a jolly shooting party segues into a raging forest fire, first spied in the distance by Cleo.
“Roma” glides from momentous incident to incident. Huge events are shown to us by way of peculiar small details. A Mexico City earthquake is depicted as ceiling rubble falling on an incubator in a hospital ward. Cuaron’s story piles on potentially melodramatic story turns, from Cleo’s pregnancy to a street massacre, but the long takes (often spiced with camera pivots and tracking shots) make us both observers and participants in what feels like a mashup of historical pageant and memoir. We’re with Cleo every step of the way, yet at the director’s visual insistence, we always see the streets, the countryside, the world around her, suggesting countless other stories yet to be told.
This is Cuaron’s first Spanish-language film since the great, carousing “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001). In that story, Maribel Verdu’s character represented a dreamy, idealized embodiment of female sexuality. In “Roma,” Cleo becomes a very different symbol, that of loving, capable lifeline to a family in need. She is equilibrium personified; at one point, her sense of balance becomes literal, when she and she alone executes a martial-arts pose demonstrated by a famous instructor.
Cuaron doesn’t get behind Cleo’s eyes, exactly, or into her soul. His movie operates differently. It’s roomy and distanced enough to allow for different emotional responses. I know people who cried their eyes out during “Roma,” and I know people who loved it precisely because it doesn’t go for the full-court press on the tear ducts. Weird as it sounds, Jacques Tati’s widescreen comedy “Playtime” (1967) may be the film “Roma” resembles most in its aesthetics and its democratic (yet tightly controlled) approach to filling a frame to bursting. A lot of the detail comes straight out of Cuaron’s childhood home, and his memories of the local Mexico City cinemas and streets. None of that would mean much unless it all came alive as something more than a personal inventory. By the end of “Roma,” Cuaron’s memories have turned into a marvel of craft, and one of the year’s very finest achievements.