Set in the early ’70s in Mexico City, Roma shows us everything from a forest fire to a riot to an earthquake to the drama of an illegitimate pregnancy. And yet one never feels overstuffed or overserved.
Despite Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent composition and his widescreen black and white photography, despite the depths of memory he exposes, Roma‘s roots are in shot-off-the-street neo-realism. It’s a film in the tradition of the best stories of a metropolispeeked at through windows and doorways, or observed in passing.
Our own window into this eternal city of the Americas is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the small, brave mestizo caregiver to a middlingly well-off family. She’s there at the end and the beginning of the film. Roma commences in blackout while we hear the slop of a bucket and the slap of a mop as she cleans up an enclosed driveway.
Cleo scales a rickety staircase to get to the clothesline on the roof, where the neighboring maids work in an ambient bubble of AM radio chatter. It’s under the flight path to the airportone of the first shots is of an airplane’s wing reflected in mop water. The holding pattern continues in a littered dusty barrio, where Roma‘s second act ends. The noise of the planes rattles a city full of millions who will never be able to afford to take flight.
On her night off, Cleo goes on a date with a young man, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero)impassioned and penniless, ridiculous and ridiculously good looking. She’s seduced, impregnated and abandoned.
Meanwhile, Cleo’s household of four kids and a thousand stuffed animals is about to become a broken home. In way of farewell, the physician father complains about the mess and the chaos before he heads off to a “conference in Montreal”he’s the proverbial dad who goes out for a pack of smokes and never returns. The mother (Marina de Tavira) keeps things going by pretending everything is normal. De Tavira plays her deliberately opaque; watching her, you may remember your own childhood efforts at second-guessing your mother’s secrets.
Cuaron’s screen is jam-packed and yet everything within its borders matters. The narrow driveway Cleo swabs is the site for a keen running joke about the too-big status symbol gringo car, with only millimeters of clearance on either side. We glimpse a mystic muscleman on TV, dressed something like Kaliman, El Hombre Increible; the yogi returns in a less benign setting, training a paramilitary gang. Needing a change of scenery, the family heads off to a hacienda in the hills, for scenes that can be compared for merry decadence to Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In this fantastic tableau, the partiers go too far with their guns, torches and booze and end up setting the woods on fire.
Mexico CIty is also ready for a conflagration. Looming trouble gives Roma shape. One senses the arrival of some terrible political tragedy. You don’t have to know the story of the Corpus Christi massacre of June 10, 1971 to feel it on its way. Posters for the upcoming presidential election metastasize on the walls, and there are repeated sinister processions of an out-of-tune military brass band strutting down the street.
Roma is the current peak of Cuaron’s giftsin display ever since his Devil’s Triangle comedy Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). In Roma, the family goes to a block-wide movie theater, the foyer as crowded with buskers and trinket vendors as a cathedral porch. There they see John Sturges’ Marooned (1969). Here, Cuaron honors the sire of his brilliant space thriller Gravity (2013).
The director’s genius in staging a skirmish was evident in the urban battle scenes in the hugely timely Children of Men (2006), and such are the Corpus Christi scenes here: a showstopper but not a finale. When the family is united in a moment of weeping on a rough beach, one sees the kind of seemingly effortless classical composition that has made cinema so overwhelming, all seven arts at once. Roma, the film of the year, is an exquisitely tender work, and a deeply layered historical re-creation that defies the colorless, noisy epics of lesser directors.
R, 135 Mins.
Select Theaters & Netflix, Dec. 14