In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s camera often pans languidly across a scene, like a mind wandering into its own corners. Cuarón’s vivid recollections of childhood rise like a slow swell of water, from the gentle lapping of drainwater that opens the film to the pounding ocean waves in its final act. If a river can reshape the landscape around it, then time can alter the topography of our memories in much the same way. Cuarón looks back to the days that helped mold the man he would become with a powerful sense of bittersweet nostalgia, and the result feels like the film he was born to make.
The story opens in Mexico City, circa 1970. Young Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works for an upper-middle class family, ostensibly as a maid, but also as a nanny, teacher, and quiet confidante. She dates Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a fierce but vacant martial arts student. The two make out in a movie theater until Cleo pulls away to tell him she’s pregnant. “That’s good, right?” He says, kissing her on the forehead. Turns out, Fermín is coolly scoping for the nearest exit. He takes a proverbial bathroom break and never returns. Meanwhile, Cleo observes similar domestic chaos in her employers, where it’s clear the bond between Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and her doctor husband is fracturing.
Cuarón handles this deceptively complex story with the invisible-yet-obvious mastery of a true auteur. Many key scenes unfold in brilliant, unbroken takes. Subtle, intimate moments of drama are punctured by sweeping, cinematic sequences of earthquakes and fire, bullets and brutality. Music is only deployed incidentally and Cuarón constructs the film to feel unencumbered by visual gimmickry. The camera merely acts as an observer, giving the entire movie a sense of immediacy.
Roma is moving and powerful, in its own unique, unvarnished way. Cuarón regards Cleo with clear admiration, as she makes her journey of discovery and finds untold strength along the way. Her story resonates with his earliest years; her pride and pain mirror his own. Alfonso Cuarón has made some great films, but nothing as frank, beautiful, and intensely personal as this one.
(In Spanish and Mixtec, with English subtitles.)
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