There was a certain scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s ravishing “Roma” when, for me, it evolved from a gorgeously shot drama into something much, much more powerful; from a gentle giant of a movie into something whose roar can’t be denied. I suspect that point of welcome no return is different for everyone treating themselves to the Mexican auteur’s latest miracle of a movie.
I also suspect that, in a film without agenda but certainly not without rhyme or reason, that’s Cuarón’s intention.
According to him, Cuarón didn’t direct “Roma” so much as live it, having referred to the work as a construction of his memories from growing up in Mexico. He’s not only the film’s director, writer, cinematographer and editor; he’s its autobiographer.
“Roma” begins by looking downward on a nondescript pattern of tiles. Over the course of some minutes, we observe someone getting to work on cleaning this outdoor patio floor; water, soap, scrub, repeat.
Only we don’t see them; not yet. We’re still looking downwards, at this family of tiles that, all of a sudden, a puddle of water has turned into a reflection of a world beyond. An open ceiling; a new plane of existence. And then—an airplane breaking this new dimension. Before Cuarón has even moved the camera, he’s shown us several tiers of his childhood home, building off one another until a complete scene is formed—a collaboration of memories.
The camera then pans up. And there is Cleo.
“Roma” is many things and will represent many things the more it’s seen, but beyond everything it is a moving, somber portrait of loneliness; an anthology-like series of sequences fueled by the unfolding of personal tales against grandiose forces, whether they be domestic, natural or sociopolitical. Beautiful, inevitable chaos erupts all around Cleo – the maid working day in and day out for a sole middle-class family in Mexico City – and through it all she remains an agent of selflessness.
How you react to Cleo’s domestic situation is a product of your own experiences. She is ostensibly a part of the family she works for, living in a room just yards away from the house and representing escapism for the children who inhabit it. But most of this family’s communication to her revolves around orders. She confides in her employers when she finds herself at a crossroads, but few other interactions involve cleaning up after dinner, helping to put the children to bed or waking them up first in the morning.
It’s a service some might call a relic of the past. But Cleo – played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, based on a figure Cuarón says he grew up with in his own household – embodies a special sense of humanity.
As her relationship with the family shapeshifts along with the world around them, Aparicio increasingly resembles a spirit that is at once atavistic and curiously youthful; wise, battle-worn yet always yearning to see what lies in the inner horizons of those around her. It’s one of the true empathetic performances of the year. Aparicio roams through busy roads, beaches and bedrooms constantly in search of something more vital and meaningful than herself, all the while naïve to the fact that a force like her is exactly what her increasingly volatile world needs.
And it’s a world gorgeously rendered by Cuarón. Whether they take place on the road or in a school of magic, outer space or a dystopian contemporary Europe, his films tend to live in the binary of the epic and intimate. With “Roma,” he doesn’t just find a home in that space. He turns it into a universe built from his memories, finding a unique cosmic balance in a black-and-white Mexico.
Opting to be his own cinematographer for the first time on a major work of his, Cuarón turns the screen into a canvas, limiting his camera movements to pans, left to right and right to left. Inward and outward. Personal and global. No music accompanies his explorations—just the chirps of a household, the incessant crackling of a fire, the bombast of a political uprising, the quiet mechanicals of a hospital.
The full impact of his decisions aren’t felt until the very final moments, a final satisfying shot that bookends “Roma” with its opening frame. But on the journey there Cuarón basks in the peripherals, almost without agenda, the wallpaper of his childhood brimming with life, and not all of it joyful. So much is unfolding on different layers of any given shot that “Roma” feels like the best 3-D movie that isn’t.
It would be impossible to discern the film’s highlights because so much works in concert, but when Cuarón’s eye is let free to float in its own orbit, an ethereal observer, it’s impossible not to be intoxicated. It’s also the reason why you must watch it in a theater if you can.
The miracle here (the increasingly confident Cuarón seems to achieve one with every project) is that while he continues to shift his gaze outward in “Roma,” Aparicio’s Cleo remains the center of it all. She’s a supernova of a subject; more than once Cuarón depicts her in near-mythical light.
“Roma” is an orchestra of emotion; a movie of tidal swells that it’s impossible to defend yourself from buoyed by Aparicio’s grand turn. As its conductor, Cuarón presents a collage of the past while reminding that tragedy is as much apiece of the human experience as joy. Few times before has a movie in which ostensibly so little happens felt so triumphant.
“Roma” is rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images and language
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón