It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how “Roma” casts its spell; how it blends utterly devastating moments (several of which quite literally involve life and death) with a poetic, quiet everydayness. I only know that I watched it spellbound. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is a wondrously pure example of one of the great gifts that cinema can give us: to drop us into a time, a place and a life; immersing us in the sounds and the sights and the emotions, large and small, experienced by someone we’re not. Named for the suburban Mexico City neighborhood in which it’s set, “Roma” lets us tag along for a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker in a middle-class home in 1970. Little things happen — the never-ending daily toil of cleaning and tidying; moments of affection with the family’s four children; dinner and a movie; a drink to celebrate a new year — and bigger things happen, which I’ll let the movie reveal.
Cuarón, the Academy Award-winning director of “Gravity” (his other works, over decades of filmmaking, include “A Little Princess,” “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men”), is here telling a story from his own childhood; the film is dedicated “To Libo,” his former nanny. It’s filmed — elegantly, by Cuarón himself — in gentle black-and-white, giving it the soft, nostalgic look of memory. Planes lazily cross the sky as clouds form and part; a sad-eyed dog perpetually tries to escape; a soundscape of birds chirping and cars honking and the buzz of faraway conversation wraps around the characters like a cloak.
Aparicio, at the center of the film, is a first-time actor, and the soft tentativeness of her presence precisely fits Cleo, who loves the children in her care but isn’t always certain of her place in the household. Her employer, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), is going through some drama of her own (we learn about this at the same pace Cleo does), which sometimes colors her treatment of Cleo. The delicate balance of these two women, sharing a household but not a status, is fascinating to watch.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how “Roma” casts its spell; how it blends utterly devastating moments (several of which quite literally involve life and death) with a poetic, quiet everydayness, through which ever-growing children scurry. I only know that I watched it spellbound, and that it seemed over in an instant. In one scene, on a rural hillside near the country home of a family friend, Cleo mentions the village she came from. “It’s like this place,” she says, breathing in rapturously, eyes closed. “It sounds like this, and smells the same, you can smell it.” I swear that, in that moment, I could.
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★★★★ “Roma,” with Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Nancy Garcia. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. 135 minutes. Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language. Opens Dec. 6 at Cinerama and Dec. 7 at the Crest (comes to Netflix Dec. 14).