What's remarkable about Roma is that after the overwhelming visual spectacles of Gravity and Children of Men, Cuarón has now used a similarly big, sweeping canvas to tell the most personal of human stories. It's an intimate portrait of a Mexican middle-class family during the early 1970s, inspired by the director's own memories of his childhood.
Cuarón shot the movie himself in shimmering black-and-white, and he presents every scene as a meticulously composed tableau. The movie is an epic of the everyday, and you can sense the influence of great neorealist filmmakers like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. But you can also feel Cuarón the popular entertainer hard at work, staging the action in long, unbroken takes and filling the frame with marvelous bits of quotidian detail.
Much of the action unfolds in a house in Mexico City's Colonia Roma district, where we see four children playing and running up and down the stairs. From the furniture to the décor, the house is a nearly exact replica of the home the director grew up in, and one of those children is presumably a stand-in for the young Cuarón himself.
But the kids are not the main focus here. Nor are their parents, a busy and distracted couple named Sofía and Antonio, played by Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga. The protagonist here is the family's live-in housekeeper and nanny, Cleo, an indigenous Mexican woman of Mixtec heritage played by a soulful first-time actress named Yalitza Aparicio.
Cleo is a quiet, watchful presence and the glue that holds the family together. For much of Roma we follow her as she goes about her daily routine, gently waking up the kids each morning, hanging the family's laundry up to dry on the roof, and chatting in the kitchen with her best friend in the Mixtec language. (The subtitles indicate which language is being spoken, subtly highlighting the disparities of class and ethnicity within the household.)
The story comes together from a hundred stray threads and background details. Cleo goes out with a handsome young martial artist, but he abandons her after he learns she's carrying his child. Sofía supports Cleo through her pregnancy, but the mistress of the house has problems of her own: She and the rarely seen Antonio are going through a separation.
Occasionally the business of everyday life intersects with the broader historical and political context, as when Cuarón recreates the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, in which more than 100 student protesters were killed by army soldiers. Cleo watches the horrors unfold from the window of a furniture store where she's gone to purchase a crib for her baby.
It's a stunning piece of choreography, one of many throughout the movie, and I don't mean that entirely as a compliment. I can't remember the last time I wrestled as much with a movie I admired as much as Roma. I wish that more Hollywood directors would work in this austere, observant mode, patiently building an entire world around their characters and gently, unobtrusively drawing you in.
But there's something curiously showy about the unshowiness of Roma. The pristine quality of the visuals begins to feel lofty and self-admiring; it's a movie that never lets you forget how exquisitely directed it is. For my money, Cuarón's masterpiece remains his earlier Mexican production Y Tu Mamá También, which seemed to stumble on its razor-sharp insights into class, race, privilege and oppression as if by accident. I'm not suggesting that Roma would have been better as a raucous sex comedy, only that by comparison, it feels as if it's been orchestrated to within an inch of its life.
Cuarón has conceived Roma as a valentine to the real-life Cleo: Her name is Liboria Rodríguez, and Cuarón consulted her extensively for research. But for all the sharpness of this movie's visuals and the richness of the details, there is something about Cleo and the world she inhabits that never comes into focus. Aparicio gives a deeply moving performance as Cleo, and Cuarón could hardly be more attuned to her feelings, frustrations and desires. He clearly loves this character, but both times I saw Roma, I couldn't shake the feeling that he loves his images more.