Director Alfonso Cuarón, who’s made some of the most diverse and arresting films of this century (“Children of Men,” “Gravity”), returns to his homeland to make his most personal project yet, his first set in Mexico since “Y Tu Mamá También” put him on the map back in 2001.
“Roma” is set in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood in which Cuarón grew up, and it’s a gorgeous love letter to an alternately cloistered and turbulent childhood.
The film’s focus is Cleo, a family servant played by the guileless Yalitza Aparicio, a non-actor who brings an enormous amount of unforced, stoic emotion to the role.
The film is subtitled in English and spoken in, alternately, Spanish and the more casual Mixtec language, spoken mostly between Cleo and her friend, Adela, and fellow maid (Nancy Garcia, another non-actor, and friend of Aparicio).
Cuarón shoots in black-and-white, capturing the vibrancy of 1970-71 Mexico City in a neorealist film that feels as if it could be documentary.
A scene of the joyful chaos outside a grand movie house becomes a work of art in Cuarón’s hands, as does a wildfire that breaks out during a hacienda New Year’s Eve party.
The stunning long-tracking shots that made “Children of Men” such an instant classic are on display here as well, as the city descends into turmoil during student protests that turn violent.
This happens just as Cleo is going into labor with an unintended pregnancy; the militant young man, who has ditched her and the unborn child, turns up, fleetingly, as a participant in the bloodshed.
Cleo’s storyline dovetails with that of the matron of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), whose husband abandons her and their four children, keeping the focus of “Roma” solidly on the strength and independence of women.
Cuarón has said he wants audiences to see “Roma” on the big screen, although that’s going to be a tough ask of the audiences who will inevitably wait to view it on Netflix (streaming Dec. 14) rather than during its theatrical release.
But this is a film that challenges moviegoers in a way that a Marvel movie or rom-com will not, and it is worth taking the time and concentration — and, if possible, the trip to the theater — to view a true master of the craft at work.
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