“Roma” is the rare movie in no hurry to reveal what it’s about. Alfonso Cuarón’s first project in his native Mexico since “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Roma” has more in common with that movie’s character-based storytelling than any of the bigger productions he’s made since; it also exhibits a mastery unique to his command of the medium. The bittersweet tale of a housemaid in a middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City in the early ’70s, “Roma” channels Cuarón’s memories of his upbringing into a ravishing, meditative, black-and-white saga that mines its bittersweet story from the inside out.
At its center, Cleo (remarkable newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) works for a well-to-do family headed by Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his energetic wife Sofía (a scene-stealing Marina de Tavira) along with their four kids (Cuaron based the youngest of the unit on himself). A descendant of indigenous Mesoamerican tribes (the movie includes both Spanish and Mixtec dialogue), Cleo has a comfortable routine as an extended member of the family. When the kids gather to watch television in the evening, she’s right there with them, a kind presence enmeshed in their daily life and able to live one of her own.
Along with fellow houseworker Sofi (Daniela Demesa), Cleo enjoys an active social life, and even a romance with buff martial arts stud Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who exhibits his talents to her in the nude during one of the movie’s earliest memorable scenes. Under the sheets, Cleo watches the demonstration in silence; as with a lot of the movie, she simply absorbs the energies of those around her, uncertain how to respond on her own.
For much of the first hour, the drama is slight; Cleo inhabits a stable world of cooking, cleaning, and childcare in a supportive environment. And then, Cleo faces a health crisis and doesn’t know how to proceed as her relationship goes south. Fernando leaves the family for a mysterious business trip to Quebec, while Sofía grapples with marital problems that she attempts to hide from her children, even as Cleo picks up clues of a mounting crisis.
Cuaron gradually tips this intimate struggle into a bigger canvas. At one point, an earthquake shakes the walls of a building, hinting at the possibility that this cozy existence could crash down at any moment. There’s a keen metaphor here for cultural and political challenges around the bend, but Cuarón never overplays his hand.
“Roma” assembles its narrative out of small moments, as the director’s camera pans slowly through various scenes to soak in the distinctive locale, while dispensing tidbits of story details from unlikely places. (It begs for multiple viewings, which could make the controversial decision for Cuarón to release the movie on Netflix actually a godsend, even though it deserves a big screen.)
Thanks to Cuarón’s own remarkable 65mm cinematography, it feels as if the filmmaker is writing his memoirs with moving images, yielding a hypnotic effect closer in style to the muted aesthetic of Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel, or Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman.” Cuarón’s “Roma” is by far the most experimental storytelling in a career filled with audacious (and frequently excessive) gimmicks. Here, he tables the showiness of “Children of Men” and “Gravity” in favor of ongoing restraint, creating a fresh kind of intimacy. Like a grand showman working overtime to tone things down, he lures viewers into an apparently straightforward scene, only to catch them off guard with new information.
There are no sudden twists, but “Roma” careens through unexpected developments with an organic flow. In one memorable example, a prolonged exchange at a movie theater includes a major, life-changing reveal — and then the scene continues in silence for several minutes, only to arrive at a gut punch.
While the narrative never takes “Roma” into unexpected territory, Curarón creates such a dynamic environment that it rarely matters. The sophistication of his Dolby Atmos sound design (which viewers of this Netflix release will want to experience in a theater) leads to immersive environments that emphasize how Cleo inhabits a busy world much larger than her interpersonal issues. On more than one occasion, the effect builds to apocalyptic extremes when the arrival of natural forces overwhelm the soundtrack to a shocking degree.
Nevertheless, “Roma” also excels at operating as a traditional period piece, grappling with a Mexico swept up in the fervor of 1968 activism and an influx of popular culture. Snippets of television and movies come and go, striking a cartoonish juxtaposition to the cycle of everyday life. But messier dramas keep sneaking in: as a teary outdoor argument between Sofia and her husband comes to an end, a military parade sweeps the street, overwhelming her and marginalizing her grief. More often than not, Cleo is forced to absorb other people’s problems. “No matter what they tell you, we are always alone,” an angry Sofia tells Cleo one night, and it’s only much later that this devastating mantra truly hits her, with one of the most upsetting sequences in recent cinema.
However, even a shocking turn of events sets the stage for payoff much later, reflecting the rich emotional tapestry that Cuarón constructed in piecemeal. Much of the movie’s patient approach is grounded by Cleo’s extraordinary performance. Even as she’s forced to serve as a silent witness, she’s never entirely removed from the circumstances around her. She’s on the sidelines of history, but never irrelevant to its shifting flow, and at a key moment she’s forced to step forward.
As Cleo stumbles through one development after another, planes creep across the frame like a recurring Greek chorus, reminding us of the steady passage of time and its capacity to be cyclical and surprising at once. These sort of devices help “Roma” escape some of its tidier plot points, as well as the underdevelopment of the child characters who remain so central to Cleo’s life. Even the Cuarón stand-in lacks much personality. But that coming-of-age story has been told innumerable times in various contexts, and Cuaron’s wise to realize that Cleo’s has not. Five years after the intensity of “Gravity” used this medium to transcend Earth’s boundaries, “Roma” returns us to stable ground from a brilliant new perspective.
“Roma” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it this fall.