Imagine an Italian neo-realist film of the 1950s made with all of today’s cinematic technology and you’ll have some idea of what Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is like. The result is a rapturous memory-piece, gorgeously shot and hypnotically paced.
While the title might suggest those neo-realist classics by the likes of De Sica, however, it does not refer to the Italian capital, but to the neighborhood in Mexico City where much of the action occurs. It’s the early seventies, and the focus is on an upper middle-class family. The father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a doctor; his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), along with her mother Teresa (Verónica Garcia), take care of the couple’s four children, three boys and a girl, though the children are closer in many respects to one of the family’s maids, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
Normally you’d expect such a semi-autobiographical tale to concentrate on the child who represents the writer-director, and be told from his perspective. But that’s not the case here. The focus is Cleo, and the point of view is not really hers—it’s that of a narrator, perhaps an omniscient one, looking down from above, observing her travails over the course of a year.
Those do not involve the family per se, though she’s certainly kept busy and the duty of cleaning the tile floor of the cramped garage into which Antonio’s oversized American car can barely squeeze, and which is also used as a playpen for the family’s equally oversized dog, is clearly one she does not relish. No, her great difficulty lies in the fact that she gets pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts obsessed young guy who disappears as soon as he hears that he’s about to become a father; and though she eventually tracks him down at a strange training camp presided over by a weird guru, he threatens her physically if she should dare to bother him again.
All of this happens within the context of the collapse of Antonio and Sofia’s marriage. He has found a younger woman and moves out of the house; she keeps that secret from the children, telling them that he’s off on a business trip. That doesn’t stop Sofia and Teresa from being supportive of Cleo, though a visit to a department store to buy a crib is interrupted horrifyingly by political events swirling in the country—specifically, by the Corpus Christi Massacre of June, 1971—which in turn leads to Cleo unexpectedly encountering Fermin again and being prematurely rushed to the hospital.
The last act of “Roma” proves Cleo’s unwavering dedication to her employers’ family once more when, during a trip to Veracruz during which Sofia tells the children the truth about their father, the maid literally saves two of the kids’ lives at risk to her own. She also admits something to Sofia that makes her love and loyalty to the people whose needs she serves all the more poignant.
Cuarón’s script obviously has strong elements of melodrama, but his direction deliberately underplays them—even a harrowing episode featuring an earthquake has a dire matter-of-fact quality—in favor of a lapidary, lyrical tone conveyed by the director’s cinematography, which mostly consists of a succession of beautifully composed widescreen images in lustrous black-and-white, which often ease into one another in slow pans. There are, of course, periodic intrusions of street hubbub and even violence, but more often even the sequences beyond the family are intended to evoke rather than provoke—like a New Years’ visit to a ranch outside the city, marked by a fire in the surrounding forest (that the guests work to put out themselves), which takes on an almost surrealist tone, or Cleo’s visits to the hospital, where the tone turns to a gritty realism reflective of the neo-realist school. Then there are the periodic pans into the sky above, where passenger jets are often seen slowly moving through the frame as the domestic drama unfolds below—another indication of the godlike perspective from which the story is being told.
The performances all contribute to Cuarón’s ruminative vision, with Aparicio—a non-professional—offering a subtly powerful portrait of a generally undemonstrative woman with strong emotional undercurrents just below the surface. De Tavira and Guerrero are more forceful, but never go beyond the bounds of the overall introspective framework; and the children’s background bickering, too, contributes color without becoming obtrusive.
Ruminative and quietly profound, “Roma” will draw you into its half-remembered world and not release you until its final touching moments. It will soon appear on the Netflix service, but is best experienced on the big screen, where its visual splendor and emotional resonance can be fully appreciated.