The new movie from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can manage. In good news for local cinephiles, Roma premieres this Friday not just on Netflix but at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas. The Mexican director's autobiographical odyssey, shot in black and white and full of masterfully composed wide shots and long takes, thoroughly earns a theater visit.
Let me make clear: Roma is a powerful, almost hypnotic film not because of its visual elements per se, but because of the skill with which Cuarón marries them to his subject matter. Keeping its distance from the characters yet capturing their world with intense clarity, his camera feels objective and tender at once. If we could rewatch our memories from a viewpoint that offered new insight into the world that shaped them, this is how they might look.
In Roma, that insight comes with a key change in perspective. Set in 1970-71 in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, the movie re-creates Cuarón's childhood; the director went so far as to furnish his set with family heirlooms. The protagonist, however, is not one of the educated, middle-class parents (Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga) who preside over that sprawling home, or one of their four children. It's their young live-in maid and nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
The credits run over a shot of the pavement Cleo is mopping — a task she repeats all too regularly, since the family dog does its business there. We experience the home through the lens of her daily routine. Daddy's tipsy homecoming is the highlight of everyone's day, until his frequent "business trips" start to bode ill for the family's future.
We follow Cleo during her time off, too, as she gossips with friends and dates a boy who seems less interested in her than in showing off his martial arts moves. The story that ensues is as old as time. But these mundane events have profound consequences for Cleo and for her relationship with Sofía, the once-imperious Señora who's now weathering major life changes herself.
Sometimes Roma opens out into set pieces that evoke the whole panorama of a turbulent era. The re-creation of the Corpus Christi massacre, in which a government-backed militia shot down student demonstrators in the streets, is harrowing. But the "small," personal tragedy that follows is perhaps more so.
With his resolutely domestic focus, Cuarón keeps reminding us that history is made not only in the streets but in bedrooms, dog-crap-fouled courtyards, hospitals and movie theaters. And the people who inhabit and maintain these humble spaces matter. In the shifting relationship between Cleo — who's of indigenous origin — and Sofía, we can see the troubled birth of a feminist movement that doesn't always know how to deal with differences among women.
It's easy to have such reflections after watching Roma, but not during, because the movie is a full-immersion experience. Cuarón uses no musical soundtrack beyond the songs playing on the radio, so our ears quickly attune themselves to the sounds of the city: traffic, barking dogs, a plane furrowing the sky. Those long takes aren't just cinematic stunts; they weave an illusion of watching pivotal events unfold in real time.
Roma demonstrates that great filmmaking can work on us almost subliminally, narrowing the distance between us and the screen. We emerge from it with an indelible feeling that we've traveled to another place and time, returning with a stronger sense of what binds us all together.