Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is beautiful in every way. From the subtle artistry of its black-and-white images to its personal yet universal story about a young servant, Cleo.

Set in Mexico City in 1970-71, the film is dedicated to a woman named Libo, the real-life inspiration for Cleo, a nanny and maid for a middle-class family based on the director’s own. Roma is the name of the neighbourhood in which he grew up and where the film was shot. But those autobiographical details are less important than the emotion that thoroughly infuses the film: Cuarón’s deep affection and respect for Cleo, and for a time and place that means home.

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The film begins with a shot of square paving stones in the family driveway, viewed from above so that the stones are seen as a pattern of diamond shapes. One of the few purely impressionistic images, it suggests Cuarón’s method: transforming something ordinary, so that it is seen in a fresh way. Water begins to flow over the stones, and finally the camera is back on the ground, where Cleo is washing the drive.

She is beloved by the four children in the family, quietly whispering “Wake up, my angel,” when she gets them out of bed in the morning. But Cuarón clearly defines her role as a servant, who shares a room adjoining the house with another maid, and works tirelessly. She can enjoy watching television with the family, but has to leave to make tea whenever the father wants it.  Like so many in her position, she both is and is not quite one of them.

The children have yet to learn that their family is in distress. Their father pretends he is going on a business trip, but is really leaving their mother for another woman. Throughout the film, Marina de Tavira eloquently portrays the mother’s strength and the pain she tries to hide.

But that story is a backdrop to Cleo’s. She is played flawlessly by Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted before. The camera often stays on Cleo’s face, and Aparicio displays the layers of emotion that the character grapples with as she finds herself pregnant, then abandoned by her boyfriend.

More than in most films, Roma’s distinctive style is inseparable from viewers’ experience of it. Cuarón evokes the classic works of Italian neorealism, such as Bicycle Thieves. His black-and-white is a naturalistic range of greys, not the deep-black, enhanced shades of film noir. Shooting in large-scale 65mm, he takes a wide view of most scenes as the camera stands back, sometimes panning slowly from left to right. There are no cheap editorial cuts and gestures that tell viewers what to watch, much less what to feel. Amazingly, he creates a sense that we are observing a world, even as he draws us into the lives of people who seem as real as anyone we might meet. The smaller the screen, the more the breadth of that world is likely to be diminished. 

The moments of everyday naturalism are affecting. Cleo’s boyfriend leaves her at the cinema, walking out without telling her that he won’t return. After, she sits alone on the curb of the noisy street outside the theatre, clutching the jacket he left behind. Her face registers confusion and dismay, but not self-pity. This is a world without melodrama.

High drama is handled by the characters with equanimity, as Cuarón creates glorious, complex images that may, without context, sound precious, but in the film play as realistic details. During Cleo’s appointment with a doctor at a hospital, a minor earthquake rumbles. She calmly observes the rubble that has landed on top of a baby’s incubator. (Cuarón makes it clear that the baby is still breathing.) During the family’s New Year’s visit with relatives, a fire breaks out in the woods, and the entire group, including the children, throw buckets of water on the fire as if it were a holiday game.

Children of Men was Cuarón’s one true masterpiece until now

Cuarón doesn’t ignore the political turmoil of the 70s, but lets it appear as it would to the characters. The children’s grandmother takes Cleo to a furniture shop to buy a cot for her baby, a sign of how the family has embraced her. Outside the window, pro-democracy students are demonstrating, and paramilitary troops shoot and kill many, reenacting a historical event that became known as the Corpus Christi Massacre.  

But the life-changing events are personal. Using his trademark long scenes (in Gravity, his famous uninterrupted opening is 17 minutes long) Cuarón builds tension by letting those episodes take their time. When Cleo goes into labour, she is seen on the hospital table in the foreground, while doctors examine her baby in the background, the parallel images allowing us to observe her face as well as the action behind her. In another tense sequence, the family goes to the beach and two of the children are carried too far out in the water. Cleo, who can’t swim, must try to save them.

By the time the family huddles together to hug Cleo near the end, she has emerged as both an ordinary woman and an extraordinary screen heroine, resilient and unsentimental.

Cuarón is known for the variety of his style, from the early, sexy comedy Y Tu Mamá También to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Potter franchise. The Oscar-winning Gravity is sterile and overrated, but his dystopian Children of Men is truly brilliant. It was his one true masterpiece until now. Cuarón not only directed Roma, he also wrote, edited and was cinematographer. Like a magician, he has taken his own memories, turned them into a dazzling fiction, and handed them to viewers like a gift. 

It would be hard for any film to live up to the extravagant praise that has trailed this one from the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals, but that acclaim – unlikely enough  for a subtitled black-and-white film that is 2 hours and 15 minutes long – isn’t hype. Roma is simply the most exquisite and artistic film of the year.

★★★★★ 

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