There’s no other way to say it than to say it: “Roma” is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most moving. If Norma Desmond had been able to see it she wouldn’t have worried about the pictures getting small.
Alfonso Cuarón’s love poem to the nanny of his Mexico City childhood is majestic in scale. The time is the early 1970s. The heroine, Cleo, is played by Yalitza Aparicio, and what’s discovered through her soft gaze and gentle spirit is nothing less than a time-capsule panorama of family, house, street, neighborhood, city and nation, evoked in images and sounds as potent as any that have filled the big screen. Yet the film is also intimate, and a good thing, too, because it will be streaming on small screens via Netflix after a limited theatrical run. This is life summoned up in telling detail: toys scattered around a bedroom, laundry drying on the roof, dog poop on the garage floor, the look on Cleo’s face when she realizes she’s pregnant, the children’s silence when they’re told by their mother that their father isn’t really working abroad and won’t be coming home.
The title refers to the middle-class residential district where the filmmaker grew up, not to the Italian capital—or to the Fellini film of the same name, despite many cinema references. The loosely structured narrative opens with a long, sustained close-up of soapy water swirling around the floor of that garage, and comes to a climax with water that signals regeneration or rebirth—it’s an astonishing sequence, shot in pounding ocean surf.
All of the episodes are centered on Cleo, the family’s fountain of love, and there’s a lovely paradox here. It’s obvious from the intensity of feeling throughout Cuarón conceived “Roma” purely, if not simply, as a tribute to his beloved nanny. But by exploring her seemingly circumscribed life, he’s opened his film to worlds he couldn’t imagine, let alone comprehend, when he was a boy and she was his human comfort zone. Cleo is the film’s gateway and guide to dramatizing divisions of class and ethnicity; empty government promises; the social and sexual roots of violence, and the precarious state of the poor, and, not at all a different subject, of women, even affluent women;. And Cuarón has portrayed every bit of it with perfect clarity and not the slightest whiff of preachment.
Film is illusion, of course, but the sense you get here is that wherever the camera goes there’s more to be seen on the right or left, ahead or behind. And to be heard—the sound design is spectacular. Be sure to see “Roma” in a theater while you can, before it’s squeezed down to the size of a TV screen. There’s never been anything quite like it.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.