'Roma' is Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film

The movie is a powerful story about complicated family ties.  

Yalitza Aparicio (l.) plays Cleo, the nanny for a middle-class family with four children in Mexico City.

Alfonso Cuarón, whose films range from “A Little Princess” and “Y Tu Mamá También” to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Gravity,” is probably the most prodigiously versatile film artist working today. His new film, after a break of five years, is “Roma,” which he also wrote and served as cinematographer for, and it’s his most personal, a semi-autobiographical reminiscence, filmed in lustrous black and white, of an upper-middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma where he grew up in the early 1970s. He has said, “My DNA is in this film.” (It arrives in theaters and streams on Netflix starting Dec. 14.)

Its central figure is Cleo, played by a young woman, Yalitza Aparicio, with no previous acting experience. A domestic worker, Cleo lives in a guest house in the back of the family estate and is nanny to the four rambunctious children of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician in a local hospital who, not long after the film begins, walks out on the family, leaving behind a kind of makeshift matriarchy that also includes the children’s grandmother. 

The focus is almost always on Cleo, which is probably just as well, since Sofía’s grievances are not richly rendered. Cuarón builds Cleo’s quotidian scenes with a slow grace. Long tracking shots, often filmed from a medium distance, give the action an almost abstracted feeling. The children love her – she soothes them with lullabies and wakes them with endearments. Sofía cares for her, too, except in those moments when Cleo is ordered not to waste electricity, or when she is scolded to clean up the constantly replenishing poop from the family dog. It is in such moments that the illusion of womanly togetherness is broken and we realize that we have been lulled into a familial intimacy that is more complicated, and class-based, than it might superficially appear.

The fact that Cuarón films so much of this film somewhat distanced from the action, with such sparing use of close-ups that it took me a long time to get a fix on what anybody looked like, is no doubt intentional: It’s his way of memorializing his story, his reminiscence, by fixing it in the mind free of melodramatic ploys. But as evocative and soulful as I found parts of this movie, I experienced these stylistics as more evasion than immersion. Cuarón is so careful to avoid overdramatizing the narrative that his steady-state underplaying ends up seeming equally coercive. But this is not how we are supposed to react to “Roma.” We are supposed to regard it as “real life.” 

Cuarón’s obvious models here are the neorealist masterpieces of Vittorio De Sica, which often featured non-actors, and the early films of Federico Fellini, whose “La Strada” is referenced in several sequences involving a carnival strongman. Cleo has something of the quality of Giulietta Masina’s waif in that film, a poor, obliging innocent. When Cleo’s boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial arts fanatic, turns out to be an unfeeling cur after learning she is pregnant by him, her muted sadness is intended as iconic of all women in her straits. 

The iconic aspect predominates in part because Aparicio, though she is a marvelous camera subject, is not really an actress. We can see how she looks this way and that in response to Cuarón’s coaching. Does this obviate the power of her presence? Not exactly, and in scenes such as the one in which Cleo, pregnant and in danger of losing her baby, is placed in the emergency room, all my reservations vanished. It’s the most harrowingly powerful sequence in any movie I’ve seen all year, filmed in virtually a single setup.  

But in most other ways, Cuarón may have felt that the slow creep of this movie, lyrically intended as it is, required periodic injections of spectacle. And so, somewhat clumsily, he jolts the action with a minor earthquake and a sequence, magnificently staged, of the Corpus Christi massacre that left about 120 student protesters dead. He stages a forest fire near a wealthy country hacienda and a daring seaside rescue by Cleo of two of the children, though she cannot swim. 

The central line of dialogue in “Roma” belongs to Sofía, who, some time after her husband walked out on her, says to Cleo that, as women, “we always are alone.” This note of sisterhood and victimization reduces, I think, the movie’s power, which transcends cant. Cleo is the movie’s heroine not because she is a woman scorned but because the indomitable dailiness of her life is so moving. At its best, this film makes you feel as if you could watch her go about her life forever and never tire of its simple, sorrowful dignity. Grade: A- (Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language. It’s in Spanish and Mixtec with English subtitles.)

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