Alfonso Cuarón is among the most unusual of world-class directors. He is not closely associated with any particular genre, and while there are cinematic elements that recur in his films—the long panning shots come to mind—he does not have what most filmgoers would consider a signature style. He has made, among others, the raunchy, idiosyncratic coming-of-age story Y Tu Mamá También; the best of the Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; the extraordinary dystopian fable Children of Men; and the fascinating exercise in spatial—literally spatial—geometry, Gravity. Cuarón’s trademark, to a remarkable degree, is simply excellence in whatever project he chooses to undertake.
Roma, his newest work and his most personal—an ode to his upbringing in Mexico City in the early 1970s—is a marvel: frame by frame, scene by scene. It is quite possibly both the best film of Cuarón’s career to date and the best film of the year.
The genius of Roma is that it is simultaneously narrow in focus and vast in scope. It opens with a shot that looks down from above on paving stones that, after a moment, are covered with water. A reference to the first shot of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? I tend to believe so. But in this case, the water pours not from the sky but from a bucket. This is not a public street but a private courtyard, one being mopped by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid and nanny of a well-off Mexico City family. The contrast between employers and employee is quickly made explicit in terms both cultural (while most of the film unfolds in subtitled Spanish, Cleo, who is of indigenous descent, frequently reverts to a rural Mixtec dialect) and racial: Cleo is dark-skinned, while the family she serves could hardly be whiter if they had emigrated from Sweden.
Said family consists of a mother (Marina de Tavira), a father (Fernando Grediaga), four young children, a dog, a cook (Nancy García), and a grandmother (Verónica García). But it is through Cleo’s eyes that the film is principally told, and she is that most perfect of cinematic interlocutors: central, intimate to everything that transpires within the household, even more than the parents themselves. Yet she is still, on a fundamental level, an outsider, with all the perspective that entails.
Early in the film, Cleo becomes pregnant. Her impregnator is an awful man, and he is initially presented to viewers in the most explicit sense possible: full frontal nudity, for a prolonged bout of kung fu moves utilizing a shower rod. It does not seem accidental that he is—in moral terms, plot function, and physical substantiation alike—a “dick.” Complicating matters further, the family’s father, another awful man, abandons the household for a mistress, requiring the mother to offer ever more extravagant lies to her children about his never-ending “business trip.” Cleo is caught in a perpetual twilight zone of semi-awareness, overhearing snatches of the family’s dissolution, but never being brought into its full confidence.
I’ll forgo describing the rest of the plot in any detail, in part because it is unnecessary: In Cuarón’s hands, a scene that features young brothers playing shootout with toy pistols on a roof and then segues into an inspection of laundry drying on the line is a greater pleasure than many of the year’s most clever cinematic subplots. Roma captures, as well as any film I have seen, the spirit of “magical realism,” without ever hinting at the supernatural. Its magic is pure, stunning cinematic technique.
Roma is amusing without being a comedy. (Certainly, no other quality film has ever leaned as hard as this one into the idea of dog shit as a principal narrative metaphor.) And, until its final act, it is moving without indulging in melodrama. I should caution prospective moviegoers that, in its final third, Roma has not one but two scenes that threaten to shatter your heart to a degree that few films will ever dare. I did not see these moments coming. But by its conclusion, Cuarón’s film proves itself both wonderful and fearsome. See it. You will never forget it.