Try and picture a vivid memory from your childhood. The details of this memory and others like it are often more acute than the memories from adulthood. The reason for this is simple: A young person has fewer experiences, and so there is a freshness to emotions and stimuli when they happen for the first time. Roma, the new film by Alfonso Cuarón, vividly recreates that childlike perception. It is the rare family drama that’s also a feast for the eyes, and it hinges on an act of empathy that few filmmakers dare attempt.
The first image, shot in gorgeous black and white, is an instruction for how to watch the rest of the film. Cuarón, who also served as the cinematographer, starts with a close-up of the floor, while a thin layer of water slides along one side of the screen to the other. We see some shadows in the reflection, and eventually a plane appears in the distance. The camera pulls back, putting the image into context: A housemaid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is cleaning dog shit off the ground. In films like Children of Men, Cuarón had an uncanny ability to find beauty in the mundane or grotesque. He does that continuously in Roma, using his gifts for camera placement and production design to create an immersive, impeccably curated experience.
The film involves two parallel stories, one involving Cleo and the other involving the family for whom she works. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is the family matriarch, and since her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is often away on business, Sofia’s day mostly involves Cleo, the other maids, and her four small children (Cuarón based this film on his own childhood, although it is unclear which of the children is a stand-in for him). At first, Roma offers a slice-of-life routine: Everyone goes about their business, and the household is relatively harmonious. What leads to disarray are concurrent betrayals: Antonio is not the devoted father he seems, while Cleo’s boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) disappears at a crucial point. Political upheaval also complicates the action, since part of it takes place during an actual student uprising in 1971.
Like in his other work, Cuarón wants your eye to wander into the background. It is often the case that the imagery must be in the background; if he were to film it in a more traditional way, the imagery would add to the plot, not the atmosphere. A stark example happens late in the film, when a character undergoes a surgical procedure. It is a heartbreaking sequence—at the screening I attended, many people in the audience openly wept—but the effect would be too intense or extreme if it was shot like a TV network procedural. That is not to say, however, that all of Roma is a downer. Many scenes are exhilarating, like when Cleo visits a massive martial arts rehearsal in a poor Mexico City neighborhood, or when she stumbles upon a political demonstration.
Many of the actors in Roma are not professionals, but Cuarón creates a sense of authenticity through understatement. De Tavria strikes a difficult balance between a devoted mother and an embittered woman who sulks into a funk, and yet the film would fall apart without Aparicio’s stunning work. Cleo is soft spoken and demure, but we see her depth of feeling in between the simple, natural-sounding dialogue. Another crucial context is ethnicity: The family has more European roots, while Cleo has an indigenous background (her character speaks a Mixtec dialect in addition to Spanish). This creates an additional divide between servant and served, so it is all the more moving as these barriers are demolished.
Roma opens in theaters this Friday, and will be available to stream on Netflix starting December 14th. If you are interested in this film and have the means to do so, you should see it on the biggest screen possible. Many of shots contain so much thought and detail that your TV or tablet may not do it justice. It is a luxury to let this masterful film wash over you, and a dark room with a big screen is uniquely suited to accomplish that.
Roma opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.