Master filmmaker reflects on Mexico City childhood
Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, “Roma,” gives you so much to see in each new vignette, in every individual composition, that a second viewing becomes a pleasurable necessity rather than a filmgoing luxury.
This time of year, I barely have time to see a movie once let alone twice, even with all the infernal quality currently on screens making demands of my bandwidth. I’ll just plop this one in my Netflix queue.
The counterargument to that lament is pretty simple: “Roma” rewards your time, beautifully. It moves with implacable assurance, at times nearly losing its characters inside writerdirector-cinematographer Cuaron’s boggling, fastidiously packed widescreen frames, photographed digitally in 65 millimeter black and white.
Time will reveal whether it’s a masterwork with qualifying asterisks or a masterwork, period. “Roma” casts a spell and re-creates a specific time, place and collection of personal memories in ways that will connect, I suspect, with millions.
The story takes place in MPAA rating: R (for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language) Running time: 2:15 Opens: Streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 14. In Spanish and Mixtec with English subtitles. 1970 and 1971 in Mexico City, and in other parts of Cuaron’s homeland wracked by societal unrest. The unrest inside one particular home, and family, becomes the microcosm for those larger forces. The title refers to the Colonia Roma district where Cuaron grew up, and he dedicates the picture to the nanny/housekeeper who helped raise him at a particularly wobbly time in the future director’s life.
The fictional version of that caregiver, Cleo, is played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, a schoolteacher who never acted professionally prior to “Roma.” Her warm, steady presence becomes the flame for the episodic yet magically fluid narrative.
Cleo is of Mixteco Mesoamerican background, one of countless villagers who work for families like the one in “Roma.” The chil- dren of Cuaron’s fictionalized family are secondary; this is a tale of two mother figures, the other matriarch being Sofia (Marina De Tavira).
“Roma” glides from momentous incident to incident. Huge events are shown to us by way of peculiar small details. A Mexico City earthquake is depicted as ceiling rubble falling on an incubator in a hospital ward. Cuaron’s story piles on potentially melodramatic story turns, but the long takes make us both observers and participants in a mashup of historical pageant and memoir.
Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” (1967) may be the film “Roma” resembles most in its aesthetics and its democratic approach to filling a frame to bursting. A lot of the detail comes straight out of Cuaron’s childhood home, and his memories of the local Mexico City cinemas and streets. None of that would mean much unless it all came alive as something more than a personal inventory. Cuaron’s memories have turned into a marvel of craft, and one of the year’s very finest achievements. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.