Is there anything Alfonso Cuarón can’t do? Is there any style of film he can’t tackle and master? What other director, in four straight films, could hopscotch from the intimacy of Y Tu Mamá También to the franchise imperatives of a Harry Potter movie to the daredevil dystopian magic-trick of Children of Men, all topped off by taking us to the heavens and back in Gravity? He seems to be constitutionally incapable of repeating himself. That streak continues with his latest, most personal, and I’d argue greatest film, Roma, which made its U.S. debut this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival.
Despite its seeming Italianate title, Roma is a deeply felt and soul-baring autobiographical love letter from Cuarón to the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of his childhood (the neighborhood was called Roma). The film is shot in the dreamy black-and-white of a long-lost home movie or a neo-realist Vittorio De Sica film. While it primarily revolves around the story of Cuarón’s family in the early ‘70s when he was growing up, it’s also about a slower way of life, a culture in the midst of unrest, and most of all, a woman who became a sort of second mother to him and his siblings while his parents were secretly splitting up.
Played by Yalitza Aparicio, a non-actor who makes a dazzlingly soulful debut, Cleo is the family’s maid, nanny, confidant, and tireless all-around dispenser of comfort (the rest of the cast apart from the mother, Sofiá, played by Marina de Tavira, are non-actors). The bond between Cleo and the family is both unspoken and deeply felt in every frame of this gorgeously compassionate film. She is the family’s servant, yes, but she’s also its loyal protector and, in a way, the glue that holds it together. Roma may only span a year or so, but somehow in that year is the entirety of life itself – its small, fleeting moments of joy and longer, more poignant stretches of heartbreak.
Cuarón’s film has been called a “memory play,” and that feels about right. It starts off slowly, but once you sync up with its rhythm, you’ll be locked in. Like Italian maestro Federico Fellini’s epics about his childhood in Rimini, Amarcord and Roma (a nice coincidence, that), Cuarón’s film is about the senses he still recalls from his youth — the earliest sights, sounds, and smells that seem to have left an impression that he’s never been able to shake.
In one scene, we watch Cleo doing laundry by hand on the roof level of the family’s home; then the camera pulls back and poetically pans across an entire neighborhood of maids just like her doing the same thing. In another, the family’s four children play in the driveway during a hailstorm, catching the golfball-sized balls in buckets. In another, a boozy, joyous New Year’s Eve celebration is interrupted by a forest fire that breaks out in the countryside, pulling revelers into the cause with buckets of water. And in yet another, we see Sofiá tell her four children during a vacation that she and their father are splitting up, followed by a trip for ice cream.
Deep down Cuarón gets that, in life, sometimes the smallest moments can be as indelible in the rearview mirror as the biggest and most important ones. A sunburn from a day at the beach can leave an imprint as strong as a father walking out the door on a business trip and never coming back. Nostalgia is funny that way. Experiencing the lovely and lyrical Roma, you get the impression that at age 56, Cuarón not only wanted to get these still-vivid memories down on film, but that he also needed to. You’ll be glad he did. Because movies with this much empathy and humanity don’t come along very often. A