In the months to come, you’re going to be hearing a lot about Roma (Grade: A-). Alfonso Cuarón’s visually sumptuous, intimately epic (or is it epically intimate?) return to the Mexico City of his youth won the top prize at Venice a few days ago, just as the last movie from the director’s buddy and countryman, Guillermo del Toro, did almost exactly a year ago. And like The Shape Of Water, Roma has come straight from Venice to Toronto, wowing audiences anew; the reviews have been rapturous, some nearly religious in their acclaim. There’s a lot to love about this film, from Cuarón’s pristine black-and-white 65mm imagery to the sheer amount of feverish public life the director packs into many of his frames, and I reserve the right—as I do at every festival, where I tend to hedge my bets and temper my praise—to decide that, never mind, everyone’s right, this is a masterpiece. For now, what I see is staggering formal prowess that is maybe just a little at odds with the small, even modest character drama it’s supporting.
Roma is easily Cuarón’s most human-scaled project in ages: a loosely autobiographical year-in-the-life story arriving after more than a decade spent traveling to wizard worlds, dystopian futures, and the vast vacuum of outer space. Here the focus is on more everyday stuff, the regular joys and hardships experienced by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), “the help” for an upper-middle-class family in the wealthy Roma district of Mexico City, circa the early 1970s. Like plenty of live-in housekeepers, Cleo occupies a position somewhere between employee and surrogate family member, and Cuarón shrewdly demonstrates how those lines often blur, without ever coming down too harshly on the inconsistent way the family sometimes treats her. He also underlines a shared sense of powerlessness that connects Cleo with her boss, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), whose husband basically abandons her with the children around the same time that Cleo’s budding military-man beau skips out in panic after she tells him she’s pregnant. “No matter what they tell you, women, we are alone,” Sofia insists to the young maid. The truth, of course, is that while life may be tough for both of them, money will cushion Sofia.
Cuarón makes room for small moments of comfort and disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly retreated into understatement, stylistically speaking. Shooting the film himself, but quite plainly in the mode of regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who had to bow out over a scheduling conflict), Cuarón still favors showboating long takes, beginning with his opening scene: a long stare at the tile floor of the family garage as soapy water gushes over it, like waves crashing into a beachfront, before the camera rises to follow Cleo through the house, giving us a lay of the land on one of her daily errands. Roma plunges the audience into a teeming, bustling re-creation of its not-so-distant past, reveling in the noise and activity of crowded Mexico City streets in scenes that remind viewers how masterfully he orchestrates the action within his frame. When a plane cuts a line across the sky during one moment of Zen athletic grace, passing perfectly behind the arch made by someone’s arms, one has to genuinely wonder if Cuarón had someone fly the plane, timed and framed the shot to its descent, or just got lucky. (Let’s hope Netflix has the sense to put its most visually incredible movie in theaters. Splendor of this magnitude should be experienced on a big screen.)
In its best moments, Roma reminded me of one of Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s epics of life and family, character concerns foregrounded against a richly rendered social panorama. Cuarón himself has squared the personal and the cultural before; Y Tu Mamá También—for this critic’s money, still his masterpiece—sent two oblivious kids on a road trip across a Mexico marked by both tradition and rapid social change, letting those things intrude on their story without quite penetrating their bubble of self-involvement. In Roma, it’s Cleo who’s sometimes eclipsed; we lose her in the overstuffed frame, particularly during the movie’s most jaw-dropping feat, an all-extras-on-deck re-creation of the Corpus Christi massacre. There are times when I found myself almost wishing that Cuarón would let these characters and their conflicts hold the frame harder, that they weren’t always competing with the (admittedly remarkable) staging for our interest. But maybe there’s meaning, personal and political, in the shooting style. When looking to the past of history books or our own memories, individuals can recede into the fabric. Roma refocuses our attention whenever that threat emerges, letting our eyes find the figures moving through, and living within, its urban mosaic. Like I said before, I’m not ruling out the whole masterpiece thing.