by Andrew Wyatt on Dec 19, 2018

It is apparent from the film’s first, fantastically crisp black-and-white image – a prolonged closeup of a tiled driveway, its surface periodically slopped by sudsy water – that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s quasi-autobiographical opus Roma is going to be something special. The opening credits hypnotically fade in and out over this image while the shhhhht shhhhht of an off-screen scrub brush functions as a kind of unhurried, arrhythmic pulse. And yet the scene is anything but contemplative. Rather, it invites attentiveness and an intensely active sort of watching. Cuarón is easing the viewer into his approach with a visual and aural aperitif, attuning the senses to the overwhelming whirlwind of detail that will characterize virtually every shot over the next two hours and change. Then, there it is: For a few seconds, the water sloshing over the tiles suddenly stills, ensnaring the reflection of a commercial aircraft passing far overhead. Even in the abstract, it’s a striking moment of prosaic loveliness, but it also signals Roma’s ambition to revel in both everyday minutiae and the epic grandeur of the human experience.

Unfolding over approximately one year in the early 1970s, the film centers on the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, live-in Mixtec domestic worker in a white bourgeois household in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood (the “Roma” of the title). Her employers are Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the latter a doctor whose professional obligations often take him away from home for extended periods. Among Cleo’s duties are the care of Sofia and Antonio’s four children, Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta) Pepe (Marco Graf), and Sofi (Daniela Demensa). Rounding out the household are Sofia’s elderly mother, Tereasa (Verónica Garcia), and a second Mixtec housekeeper, Adela (Nancy García García).

Drawing from his own memories of growing up in Roma, as well as the experiences of the housekeeper who is Cleo’s real-world analog, Cuarón crafts a sweeping, episodic tale of upheavals – personal, domestic, and national. At first blush, Roma might seem to be a plodding, even sluggish film, the sort of feature where earnest scrutiny is afforded to banalities such as a woman walking along a lively city street, the careful cracking of a soft-boiled egg, or the protracted, faintly absurd ordeal of pulling a massive automobile into a narrow carport.

Yet the film never feels like “Slow Cinema,” or the kind of calculatingly bland realism that attempts to de-romanticize a remembered time and place. Roma is gloriously alive, every square inch of its frame bursting with texture and activity. Despite its down-to-earth character, the film has justifiably drawn comparisons to the more heightened and darkly ironic works of Federico Fellini, especially his masterworks La Dolce Vita (1960) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). One can see the resemblance, not just superficially in the film’s evocative black-and-white photography but also in its canny eye for the delights, travails, and absurdities of ordinary life, as well as its taste for left-field flourishes. An inexplicable background set piece involving a human-cannonball stunt at a political rally feels like something inadvertently left out of Fellini’s La Strada (1954) or that director’s own semi-autobiographical feature, Amarcord (1973).

However, the filmmaker who also leaps to mind is Jacques Tati, and specifically the French director’s comic masterpiece Playtime (1967). While Roma replaces that film’s droll satirization of modern life with kitchen-sink realism, Cuarón’s feature is similarly abuzz with energy, its every frame a dizzying mini-masterpiece of dense composition and balletic choreography. Whether observing Cleo as she silently goes about her morning laundry routine or following a lively Christmas party at a hacienda, Cuarón – who here assumes the roles of both director and cinematographer – turns every shot into a silvery Renaissance painting, coaxing the eye this way and that in search of little visual discoveries. However, unlike, say, the dollhouse fussiness of Wes Anderson’s works, or even the long-take showstopper set pieces in Cuarón’s own Children of Men (2006), Roma never emits a telltale whiff of exertion or orchestration. Much like Fellini at his best, Cuarón displays a virtuosic elegance here that is gobsmacking in hindsight; similar to La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ (1963), Roma never looks like work. It looks like the splendor, heartbreak, and strange madness of life itself.

For all its self-assured lavishness, Roma is a multi-pronged but relatively straightforward film at bottom: a nostalgic celebration of a particular time and place; a revisionist mash note to a marginalized woman who was central to Cuarón’s young life; and an illustration of the ways that the personal and the political are inextricably co-mingled. The paired dramatic foci of the film’s story are the disintegration of Sofia’s marriage and Cleo’s unplanned pregnancy, tribulations that unfold roughly in parallel. On paper, there is a certain telenovela soapiness to these events, but Roma’s approach is too sweeping and digressive for the film to be characterized as a straight melodrama.

The feature doesn’t have a succinct plot so much as a sour through-line: the selfishness and cruel indifference of men. Antonio is engaged in the slow-motion abandonment of his family – Cleo discovers at one point that his supposed conferences in Quebec are a cover for visits to his mistress – an unwelcome change that the family members all react to with differing levels of denial, anger, and anguish. Meanwhile, Cleo’s cocky, martial-arts-enthusiast boyfriend, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), bolts at the first mention of their impending baby, excusing himself to the restroom during a movie and then never returning. This unceremonious desertion upends Cleo’s solid routine, infusing it with a queasy uncertainty about the future.

Although Cleo is nervous about revealing her pregnancy to her employer, the family reacts to the news with genuine joy and kindness. Perhaps prompted in part by her own troubles, Sofia makes Cleo’s imminent motherhood a personal priority, sending the housekeeper to one of Mexico City’s best obstetricians and allowing her to pick out a crib at an upmarket department store. It’s during this shopping trip that Cleo and Teresa run headlong into the June 10, 1971, Corpus Christi massacre, in which student demonstrators were brutally attacked by a black-operations army group, Los Halcones. This sequence – a staggering and harrowing feat of historical re-creation punctuated by a personal tragedy for the film’s characters – is the most conspicuous instance in which blood-spattered reality spills over into Roma’s generally heartfelt conjuration of the period’s prosaic rhythms. It’s undeniably riveting to watch, but also one of the few occasions in which the film’s commitment to period verisimilitude shades into Forrest Gump-ian implausibility.

Cuarón is on much surer footing when he quietly illustrates the innumerable ways that Mexico’s social and political inequalities inform character dynamics. In this, the director’s decision to center his feature on Cleo rather than one of the non-indigenous adults or children is essential. Like many live-in domestic workers, Cleo and Adela are at once an integral part of the family’s daily life and pointedly separate from it, their outsider position demarcated by their ethnicity, class, and employee status. Cuarón emphasizes these divisions repeatedly, without ever explicitly referring to them in the film’s dialogue. To wit: Cleo and Adela are obliged to sleep in a tiny, upper-floor apartment across the courtyard from the main house. After sunset, the women keep the lights in their little flat switched off, lest they invite a scolding from Sofia for “wasting” electricity. This sort of disdainful highhandedness seems to be the exception rather than the rule, but the little indignities are always there, subtly reminding Cleo of her place in the household. In one fantastic scene in which the family has gathered to watch television, Cuarón’s crisp attentiveness to the housekeeper’s movements around the room underlines her simultaneous intimacy with and separation from them.

The unassuming miracle of Roma is that this systemic subtext is subordinate to but never completely banished by the film’s rich sentimentality and dry humor. The shadow is always there, at once sharpening and complicating an otherwise humane, loving portrayal of the Mexico of Cuarón’s youth. The filmmaker achieves this in part by privileging a different personal-is-political dimension to the story: namely, the bond between women of all stations who have been wronged by men. Resigned to the reality of her abandonment, a mascara-streaked Sofia sniffles bitterly to Cleo, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

This miserable notion is self-evidently false, of course: Cleo and Sofia have each other, and they have the children whom they both adore. The sublime grace of Cuarón’s feature lies in how he permits the connection between Cleo and the family to flourish and mature unironically, all without neglecting its thornier racial and class aspects. In the film’s final act, that connection crystallizes during a weekend holiday at a seaside town, a trip in which the last traces of Antonio are figuratively washed away. Said holiday concludes with a terrifying incident that establishes a new emotional intimacy between Cleo and the family, and highlights her status as a cherished member of the household.

Besides Cuarón’s own stunning ambition and cinematic talents, Roma rests to a great extent on the shoulders of newcomer Aparicio, whose sincerity, serenity, and vulnerability are integral to the film’s down-to-earth humanity. Cleo is a figure who seems at once earthy and celestial, her centrality to the story never in question, notwithstanding the maelstrom of city bustle and historical destiny that swirls around her. She is unmistakably the Protagonist in a cast of thousands, even when she is passive – such as mischievously playing dead in the afternoon sun with her youngest charge, or simply standing agog in her nightgown as men rush to extinguish a furiously burning plantation orchard.

Even in 2018, there is a certain radicalness intrinsic in placing a dark-skinned, working-class Mixtec woman at the center of her own story. What makes Cuarón and Aparicio’s approach so fascinating is how carefully they balance the character’s messy humanity with her idealized aspects. On the one hand, for example, the film shows Cleo gazing appreciatively at Fermín’s naked body as he poses for her amusement. (How often are indigenous female characters allowed to simply acknowledge that they have libidos?) On the other, Cuarón crafts a vibrating moment of magical realism in which Cleo – and only Cleo – is capable of assuming a yogic pose that an army of martial-arts students find impossible. Who is Cleo? A victim? A hero? A worker? A flesh-and-blood woman? An unassuming Virgil in this cinematic time machine? A guardian angel plucked from Cuarón’s memories? Yes – all these things, and many others. Like every person living or dead, she’s the star of her own story, and all the world's a stage.

Ultimately, what makes Roma so enthralling is how grand and majestic it feels, even in its smallest moments and simplest gestures. It’s a film that captures the vibrant pulsations of life in all its myriad iterations: in a child’s playroom; during a freak hailstorm; in a hospital emergency room; under the rooftop clotheslines; in a basement cantina; in the midst of a riot; in a tranquil courtyard at dawn, where the parakeets chirp and Cleo’s day begins. In Roma, Cuarón has crafted not just a great feat of cinema, but a work that’s destined to be savored and pored over for decades to come. “Let’s talk soon,” Cleo remarks to Adela after returning from her beach holiday with the family. “I have so much to tell you.” Roma has so much to tell us, it’s practically overflowing.