Alfonso Cuarón honors his childhood nanny in “Roma,” his 1970s-set memory drama. Featuring epic-scale storytelling, black-and-white cinematography, a wealth of period detail and a master’s touch, the film is spellbinding.
It is the first movie since his 2002 road tale “Y Tu Mama Tambien” that Cuarón, whose English-language credits include “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” has made in his native Mexico. It contains a realist tone, a spare but satisfying plot, Mexican history, substantial suspense and a superb protagonist.
In 1970, in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, Cleo (talented newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), is a live-in domestic worker employed by a family consisting of a biochemist, Sofia (Marina de Tavira); a physician, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga); a grandmother (Veronica Garcia); four young children; and a dog whose ubiquitous droppings, along with a Galaxy too big for the driveway, Cuarón presents dryly comically.
Overall, she likes her job.
Beginning with an extended shot of soapy water on the garage floor Cleo is cleaning, Cuarón immerses us in Cleo’s world. We see Cleo sweeping, cooking, doing laundry and dressing the kids. When not working, she and fellow housekeeper Adela (Nancy Garcia) double-date with their boyfriends.
Cleo and Sofia face new challenges when abandoned by the men in their lives.
Cleo experiences unexpected consequences from her relationship with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast who’s in the military.
Sofia begins crumbling when realizing that Antonio, presumably away at a medical conference, isn’t returning home. What will she tell the children?
A symbolic earthquake occurs: Disaster is coming.
Cuarón dramatizes the real-life Corpus Christi massacre in one sequence.
In another, at an almost surreal New Year’s party at a wealthy landowner’s hacienda, guests shoot rifles in the woods, the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack is playing and a conflagration occurs.
Also on the slate are a harrowing hospital emergency and beach incident. Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer, presents the latter in a single take.
Cuarón shot on digital 65mm cameras in naturalistic black-and-white to visually suggest the past without sentimentality. His widescreen format allows for an immersing experience as ocean waves or news-photo-like street unrest fills the picture.
Small moments, too, are crucial to the beauty of this personal and profoundly human film. An image of Cleo watching TV with her employers, while the arm of one of the children — the kids adore her — is draped over her, is particularly memorable.
Aparicio, a newcomer discovered during a casting search, carries the drama, and that’s essential, in the role of the unassuming, quietly dignified Cleo. If Cuarón, who based the Cleo character on his former nanny, seems to present Cleo as a little too saintly at times, Aparicio’s natural grace makes that depiction credible.
The production design — the lived-in house where Cleo works is modeled on Cuarón’s childhood home, for starters — further enhances the memory vibe.
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Nancy Garcia
Written and directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes