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.