It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last project (though to be fair he is no stranger to lengthy gestation periods: a whopping seven years passed between Children of Men and Gravity), but in the opening moments of Roma—his newest and most personal film to date, by way of Netflix—the Mexican auteur wastes no time reintroducing viewers to his signature style. Known for sumptuous long takes, he begins by dialing it back with a languid credit sequence overlaid atop a soapy puddle of water that sloshes back and forth across the screen, the visage of an airplane briefly visible in its reflection. It’s a simple but evocative shot in a film full of shots that are anything but simple, an understated primer for the oncoming deluge of elaborate composition and deft camera work. (Sidenote: Cuarón recently expressed his love for Twin Peaks and I doubt this scene inspired him, but I was immediately reminded of it). However, the scene is also a harbinger of a (slightly) worrying trend; yes, Roma is blisteringly beautiful, but at what point does beauty stop working in service of the narrative? Cuarón might not reach the breaking point, but he certainly seems willing to test the limits.
Named after the Colonia Roma district in Mexico City and born from memory, Roma is an alternately sweeping and intimate evocation of a tumultuous time, both in Mexican history and the director’s domestic life, as well as a loving ode to his childhood nanny, Libo, for whom the film is dedicated. Split between the backend of 1970 and the first half of ’71, the film in part details the disintegration of Cuarón’s parents’ marriage, as filtered through a completely fictional upper middle class family. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio stars as Cleo, the family’s Mixtec housekeeper and all-around lynchpin. Those familiar with Mexican history might recognize the importance of 1971, but for those who aren’t, I point you here for a far more thorough description than I can provide. For a taste of what this militarized environment was like though: early on in the film the family’s eldest son, Paco (Carlos Peralta), recounts a story over breakfast about someone recently being shot in the head by soldiers. So common is this level of violence, his family barely bats an eye.
As the focal point of the narrative, a lot rides on Aparicio’s shoulders, and she responds by turning in one of the best performances of the year, bringing a wealth of tenderness and nuance to her role. While stories about nannies can risk feeling rote and unoriginal—indeed, some of the beats here undoubtedly feel familiar—it works because her adoration of the children is palpable, especially for the youngest two, Pepe (Marco Graf) and Sofi (Daniela Demesa). She sings them soft lullabies, indulges Pepe’s wild imagination (he talks frequently about adventures in previous lives), and cooks whatever they’d like with nary a complaint. In turn, they cling to her like cubs to a mama bear. As for their actual mother, Marina de Tavira serves up a wonderful supporting role as Sofia, a strict but endearing woman dealing with some understandable emotional fallout. One of the film’s strengths is an oddball sense of humor which she contributes greatly to.
The other half of the narrative equation comes in the form of Cleo’s personal life; after announcing her pregnancy, the baby’s father, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), abandons her. Despite their wildly different backgrounds, this leads to a touching display of female solidarity from Sofia, who consoles Cleo and reassures her of her standing with the family, at one point drunkenly declaring, “No matter what they tell you, women, we are alone.” And though there are multiple moments of blunt foreshadowing, Cuarón films with such unflinching intensity that when things finally do boil over the impact is no less powerful.
As a window into the past, Roma is an undeniable accomplishment. The use of 65mm digital black and white photography immediately distinguishes itself from its contemporaries, offering a supernaturally clean picture quality, which, combined with Cuarón’s luminous image-making ability, makes for a movie that is often stupidly pretty—and I mean that in a good way (that said, I’ll still take film over digital any day of the week). In his quest for authenticity, Cuarón had his childhood home painstakingly recreated, and he clearly cherishes the results of his cinematic excavation, soaking in the environment with shots and pans that linger far longer than usual. The sound design (fueled by Dolby Atmos) is also phenomenal, breathing life into every scene; perhaps the biggest tragedy of the limited theatrical run is that most people won’t experience the immersive soundscape in its full glory.
Unfortunately, the inherently artificial nature of all the long takes kind of undermines the sense of authenticity that Cuarón is going for. It’s strange to say, but for such a personal undertaking, the film feels oddly detached. At a certain point you cease to have a lived-in quality by utilizing such a meticulously crafted mode of expression. In a way, you can see him pulling the strings, like it’s all one big diorama. We know he’s capable of hitting it out of the park, but a good offense should rely on more than just home runs. If Cuarón elected to keep it simple even just a tad more, he could have achieved a more empathetic film.