PLOT In the early 1970s, a middle-class woman and her housekeeper each undergo a personal crisis.
CAST Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
RATED R (nudity, violence, adult content)
PLAYING AT Opens Thursday at Malverne Cinema 4 and Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington. Starts streaming Dec. 14 on Netflix.
BOTTOM LINE A rare kind of masterpiece from director Alfonso Cuarón.
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is a movie about what it means to be alive in a certain time and place. Set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in late 1970 and early 1971, “Roma” follows two women, middle-class housewife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her longtime housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a nonprofessional actress in a stunning debut). They are separated by class but bound by gender, and both are victims of forces beyond their control. Cuarón tells their stories without any agenda, however; issues and -isms don’t concern him.
Inspired by the director's own childhood and filmed as much as possible where he spent it, “Roma” begins with a portrait of domestic tranquility: Señora Sofia, her four children, dependable Cleo and at the end of each workday, Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the family’s status-conscious patriarch. We learn that Cleo has a boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a serious young fellow devoted to martial arts and clean living. We see contentment in this picture, though we also see disparity; Cleo and another maid sleep in a cramped guest cottage away from the spacious main house.
In short order, the men fail in their duties. Dr. Antonio leaves Sofia for a mistress, just as Fermin leaves Cleo pregnant. Mexico is in political turmoil — student protests end in death, young men are joining paramilitary gangs — but that matters little to Cleo and Sofia. Suddenly, they are closer to ruin than they ever imagined.
As “Roma” unfolds, it’s tempting to draw a comparison to “The Bicycle Thief,” Vittorio De Sica’s class-conscious slice of life from 1948. “Roma” feels more like something out of Proust, though — a drama heightened by the vivid sense memories of youth. The movie is filled with details: old television shows, certain kinds of cars, a recording of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that becomes oddly associated with New Year’s Eve.
Cuarón’s films often feel attuned to a larger meaning, a larger awareness (the apocalyptic “Children of Men,” even the space thriller “Gravity”). “Roma,” however, is close to an out-of-body experience. The black and white cinematography (also by Cuarón) is almost incomprehensibly beautiful, silvery and idealized yet somehow razor-sharp and hyper-real. “Roma” is the kind of movie that the movies were made for.
Some of Cuarón's best, from 'Tu Mama' to 'Gravity'
The Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón released his first feature film in 1991, though his American breakthrough was relatively recent. Here’s a short list of his better-known films.
Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2001) This sexually explicit drama about two teenage boys and an older woman proved a big break not only for Cuarón but for two of its stars, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) For the third “Potter” film, previous director Chris Columbus gave the reins to Cuarón, resulting in what critics called one of the series’ best — and darkest — episodes.
CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine star as the last of an infertile human race. Though not a box-office hit, the film became a critics’ darling and remains a cult favorite.
GRAVITY (2013) Sandra Bullock and George Clooney lent Hollywood star-power to this unorthodox production — an austere yet technically dazzling survival story set in outer space. It won seven Oscars, including best director. —RAFER GUZMAN