The filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has said that his new feature Roma is the movie he was always meant to make, the culmination of everything he’s done before. This statement is saved from grandiosity only by being so transparently true. The sweeping yet contemplative drama, which takes its name not from the Italian capital but from the Mexico City neighborhood where Cuarón grew up, combines elements from just about every film he’s made, from the indie-est to the most mass-market. Like his 1991 debut, the satirical romantic comedy Sólo con Tu Pareja, it explores the turbulent domestic lives of middle-class Mexico City dwellers—though in Roma’s case the scope opens up to include the lives of their live-in servants. Like his first Hollywood film, an adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic A Little Princess, Roma explores the subjective experience of childhood—though it’s not, like that movie, told from a child’s point of view, or indeed placed inside the subjective world of any specific character. Like Cuarón’s breakthrough international hit Y Tu Mamá También, it’s framed as the work of a grown man looking back at his youth, though here the voice-over has been replaced by a purely visual approach in which the movement of the camera through space is enough to suggest the existence of a point of view, a mind doing the remembering.
Like Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—widely and to my mind rightly considered the best-made movie in that series—Roma is about magic, not the Hogwarts kind but the even weirder alchemy of memory and art. Like his masterpiece Children of Men, an adaptation of a dystopian novel by P.D. James, it’s concerned with questions of natality and futurity, the miracle that new life represents in an ever more frightening and unjust world. Finally, like Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Gravity, Roma is a flat-out technical marvel. Using black-and-white 65 mm digital cinematography (the director of photography is the writer-director himself) and up-to-the-minute sound mixing technology, Roma tells a story at once intimate and epic, or rather, a story that’s capable of moving from intimate to epic and back again within the space of one long, kinetic take.
Not only has Cuarón never made a more autobiographical movie than Roma, I’d be hard pressed to think of any nondocumentary director who has. In an act of re-creation that borders on madness, the 56-year-old filmmaker traveled to his home city with a celebrated Mexican production designer (Eugenio Caballero, who designed Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth), chose a location not far from the house where he grew up, and in essence rebuilt his childhood home inside the house they rented for that purpose. The room layouts and designs were constructed exactly as the director remembered them, and his siblings provided furniture, knickknacks, even toys from their early days. The casting process was similarly meticulous: For every role, Cuarón sought actors who looked as much as possible like the faces he remembered. This resemblance was especially important when it came to the lead role, Cleo, the maid–turned–nanny–turned–second mother played by the extraordinary first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio and based on Cuarón’s beloved childhood caregiver, Libo Rodríguez (whom Variety recently profiled alongside the director, and whose memories of that time served as the basis for his screenplay).
This elaborate process of reconstruction and re-enactment would seem to bode ill for the final result. After all, as Charlie Kaufman’s gloomy allegory Synecdoche, New York foretold, any artist who attempts to make art by recreating the details of his own life on a grand scale is doomed to produce something self-referential and airless, right? But somehow, from its very first shot of a light-flooded stone floor being cleaned by slosh after slosh of soapy water, Roma feels just the opposite. It’s fully aerated, its images washed by light as if by a liquid substance, and so non–navel-gazing that, of the four children in the family, it’s never clear which one is supposed to represent the younger Cuarón. The story’s true protagonist—a heroine who earns that designation, scene by scene—is Cleo, a young woman from a small Oaxacan village who speaks in a mixture of Spanish and her native language, Mixteco (the subtitles are differentiated so the viewer can tell which one is which) and lives in a room above the family’s garage with her friend Adela (Nancy García), also a domestic employee.
I’m not inclined to reveal too much about what happens to Cleo; her employer, Sofía (Marina de Tavira); and the four children they care for together in the year or so over which the movie takes place. Cuarón himself took care during filming to reveal each new story development to the actors only as needed for the next day’s shoot, which required the unusual and labor-intensive choice of shooting all the scenes in order. Roma is a movie about the way daily life unfolds in real, unpredictable time, sometimes bumping up against major historical events (like the massacre of student protesters that took place in the streets of Mexico City in June 1971) and sometimes proceeding at the pace of the simplest daily tasks: hanging laundry on a clothesline, tucking in a child with a lullaby, or cleaning up the dog poop that accumulates daily on the family’s garage floor. (I’m almost certain that errant pet turds have never been so lyrically photographed.)
All you need to know going in is this: The children’s father, a doctor (Fernando Grediaga), leaves early in the film on a business trip of uncertain duration. Cleo and Adela spend their days off going on double dates, and Cleo’s connection to a young man named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) turns out to have lasting consequences. And the family continues to live together, fighting, eating meals, playing board games, and going to the movies.
The class system that keeps Cleo forever suspended between the statuses of domestic worker and beloved family member is ever-present to the viewer’s mind—it is, in some sense, the movie’s whole subject—but Roma never takes the form of either social-justice manifesto or satire. Though she suffers great personal hardship over the course of the story, Cleo’s life is not painted as joyless or unendurable. She finds small moments of happiness every day, lying in the sun on the roof or watching nighttime TV with the family (though Cleo alone can be interrupted at any time to fetch tea for her employers). Most of all she loves the four children she cares for, and they love her back. The kids’ relationship with their anxious and short-tempered mother is more fraught, though her character is written (and played by de Tavira) with compassion and complexity.
The defining aesthetic element of Roma (and one I fear this review hasn’t conveyed yet even at the thousand-word mark) is its mise-en-scène, a much-debated and hard-to-define term having to do with the placement of figures and objects in a film’s frame and the choice of whether and how to move the camera through that frame. Very few movies I’ve seen have relied this much on composition to tell their story (the work of Orson Welles and of the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, both great compositors of images, comes to mind). Cuarón’s camera roams freely among rooms or across landscapes, allowing us to make what we will of what we see. The wide frame allows for grand tableaux when they’re needed, as in the scene of the student massacre, which when it comes is both frightening and breathtaking, a historical photograph come to dangerous life. The period design is both newsreel-like in its specificity and Proustian in its evocation of subjective experience.
And I haven’t even gotten to the ingenuity of Roma’s sound design! With no added music or other sound besides what the characters hear, Cuarón uses the sound-layering digital technology known as Atmos to render the soundscape of 1970s Mexico City in all its richness, with passing military bands, whooshing traffic, the shouts of children playing, and barkers hawking games and toys. There’s no detail that’s not there for a reason—but there’s also no need to go chasing down all the meanings. On a simple emotional level, Roma is overwhelming. It’s a film you let wash over you like ocean waves until the heart-pounding climactic scene arrives, and you suddenly realize how deep the water around you has grown.
One note about this movie’s release strategy: In an unusual arrangement, the distributor, Netflix, has agreed at the filmmaker’s request to release Roma on screens in some locations this week before its streaming debut on Dec. 14. I rarely get evangelical about viewing modalities, but if there’s any way to do so where you live, please get yourself to a real theater to see this. So much of what’s special about it—the widescreen compositions, the complex sound mix, the fluid shifts in scale—would be lost on a home TV screen, much less a laptop. Roma is hypnotic and transporting and sublime, everything a movie seen on the big screen ought to be. Seeing it in a theater will not only give you a far better experience of the film itself, it’ll demonstrate to Netflix—a company many in the film industry regard as an existential threat to their art form—that audiences still consider some movies worth leaving home for.