Taking place in Mexico City in 1970 to ’71, Roma shows us everything from a forest fire, to a riot, to an earthquake, to the drama of an illegitimate pregnancy. And yet one never feels overstuffed or overserved.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest is a film in the tradition of the best stories of a metropolis, peeked at through windows and doorways, or observed in passing. Our own window into this eternal city of the Americas is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the small, brave mestiza caregiver to a middlingly well-off family.
Roma commences in blackout as we hear the slop of a bucket and the slap of a mop as Cleo cleans up an enclosed driveway. On her night off, Cleo goes on a date with a young man, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), impassioned and penniless, ridiculous and ridiculously good-looking. She’s seduced, impregnated and abandoned.
Meanwhile, the house where Cleo works, with four kids and a thousand stuffed animals, is about to become a broken home. By way of farewell, the physician father complains about the mess and the chaos before he heads off to a “conference in Montreal”—he’s the proverbial dad who goes out for cigs and never comes back. The mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), keeps things going by pretending everything is normal.
Needing a change of scenery, the family heads off to a hacienda in the hills, for some scenes comparable in their merry decadence to Renoir’s Rules of the Game. In this fantastic tableau, the partiers go too far with their guns, torches and their booze, and set the woods on fire.
Mexico CIty is also ready for a conflagration. Looming trouble gives Roma shape. One senses the arrival of some terrible political tragedy. You don’t have to know the story of the Corpus Christi massacre of student demonstrators on June 10, 1971, to feel it on its way.
Roma is the current peak of Cuarón’s gifts—in display ever since Y Tu Mamá También (2001). When the family is united in a moment of weeping on a rough beach, we see the kind of seemingly effortless classical composition that has made cinema so overwhelming, all seven arts at once.
Roma is an exquisitely tender work, and a deeply layered historical recreation that defies the colorless, noisy epics of lesser directors. It’s the film of the year.
‘Roma’ opens in select theaters in the North Bay and on Netflix streaming on Dec. 14.