If the most epic stories are oftentimes the most intimate and humanthe ones which barrel straight into the messy, miraculous heart of existencethen "Roma" arrives as an awestruck cinematic miracle. Inspired by writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's (2013's "Gravity
") reminiscences from childhood and dedicated to the real-life nanny, Liboria "Libo" Rodríguez, who helped to raise him, the film is saturated in all of the beauty, the heartache, and the mystery life has to offer. Luminously photographing in galvanizing, sharp-contrast 65mm black-and-white, the filmmaker behind such science-fiction groundbreakers as 2006's "Children of Men
" and 2013's "Gravity
" has accomplished his most personal, earthbound work to date. Adopting a naturalistic, semi-improvised approach while outdoing itself time and again with the sheer profundity of its imagery and the unvarnished emotions of its characters, "Roma" plays like poetry in motion.
Before being cast, newcomer Yalitza Aparicio had never before acted. Her inexperience proves a blessing in an astonishing performance of unaffected, lived-in verisimilitude. She plays Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutierrez, a young domestic worker living in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970. Rooming with coworker and friend Adela (Nancy García) in a small guest house adjacent their employer's home, her days are predominately filled with the daily chores of cooking and cleaning and helping to care for the four young children of Sra. Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). This is a family who appreciates Cleo and cares for her even as there is an unspoken natural division, and she is there to bear witness to a mounting strain on their nuclear unit when the patriarch walks out on his wife and kids under the guise of an extended business trip. Sofía knows the bitter truth, and she clings to creating an aura of normalcy for the family while faced with new challenges as a single mom with one income. Meanwhile, Cleo is determined to not make waves but has a dilemma of her own: she has recently learned she is pregnant, and it's clear the father, sketchy martial arts enthusiast Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has no interest in supporting his offspring.
"Roma" is a tour de force of the senses as well as the heart, not a seam to be found in its travel through time back to Mexico, circa 1970-'71. Full of keen, expressive observations and mesmerizing tracking shots of Cleo surrounded by a world in motion, the picture places the viewer in our lead character's shoes. Rarely in memory has a film so vividly keyed into the moment-by-moment duties and experiences of a character (in this way, it positively reminds of Chantal Akerman's 1975 cinéma-vérité
masterwork "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"). We see what Cleo sees, hear what she hears, and by extension feel what she feels, her world threatening to change even as, in other ways, it remains the same. The high-wire tension and humor Cuarón infuses from everyday minutiasuch as a running thread wherein Antonio and later Sofía have trouble fitting their bulky car within their home's tight covered drivewayis nothing short of bravura. Equally hypnotic is the beauty found in the mere act of waking early and preparing for the day ahead, or switching off a house's first-floor lights as a family slumbers above.
Simply describing the premise of "Roma" may, perhaps, make it sound episodic or uneventful. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a visual feast of a film, an expert demonstration in the art of showing rather than telling. Scene after scene finds perceptive ways to surprise and envelop the viewer, taking Cleo on an odyssey of coincidence and fate, of self-discovery and heartbreak. The sheer number of hauntingly gorgeous interludes are staggering. There are formative trips to the Metropólitan cinema where "Monte Carlo or Bust!" and "Marooned" are showing. There is a visit to an OB/GYN culminating in a portentous earthquake, Cleo looking on as debris lands on the top of a premature baby's incubator. There is a New Year's Eve celebration at a fancy country hacienda
culminating in a forest fire, tipsy revelers meandering about as others fruitlessly try to put out the ravaging flames and a man in a disconcerting "Krampus-like" costume forlornly sings in the foreground. Cleo's path crosses with that of a deadly student demonstrationwhat would come to be known as the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971at a most inopportune time. And, in a collection of riveting, powerful extended shots, a beach trip to the Veracruz city of Tuxpan brings Cleo to the edge of would-be tragedy while ultimately providing her the solace she needs.
In a quietly poignant moment which speaks volumes, Cleo looks out over a foreign landscape of rolling hills and farming fields, commenting that it feels like she has returned to the village where she grew up. In another, young Sofi (Daniela Demesa) rests her head on her nanny's shoulder and tells her she loves her. All the while, jets fly overhead, the world so much vaster than what Cleo can imagine. In "Roma," Cleo finds herself straddling between her past and the present, between the life she once knew and the one she now has, hundreds of miles away from her old home and yet believing she is exactly where she should be. She may not be a blood relative of the family she works for, but she comes to be a fluid extension of them; in their own special ways, they need and value each other, sharing a bond that could well last a lifetime. A breathtaking travelogue through the profundity of memories, "Roma" exhales the magic and empathy inherent in the very best which film has to offer.