Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
Playing at IFC Center, Landmark at 57 West; streaming on Netflix from Dec. 14
"Roma," the greatest film Alfonso Cuarón has made, begins with a sustained close-up of a puddle of water on a floor. A reflection of a plane flying overhead passes through. Eventually, the perspective shifts to reveal a woman in the near distance, washing the driveway to a home.
In some respects, it seems like an inauspicious beginning to a movie of stunning, shattering power, a societal epic that doubles as a memoir reflecting on the filmmaker’s childhood in Mexico City circa the summer of 1971.
But by announcing itself with the camera pointed toward the ground, depicting a single image that unites a mundane, earthbound detail with air travel’s soaring promise of escape, a clear template becomes established for a vision that the filmmaker sees through with steadfast focus and seemingly effortless aplomb.
This is the best movie of the year, and it must be seen on the biggest possible screen before it arrives on Netflix.
It is an ode to his youth and tribute to the maid who kept Cuarón’s family together that is predicated on an innate understanding of how the smallest and most intimate of memories become inextricably entwined and shaped by the largest social currents.
The family at the center of this movie lives what appears to be a comfortable and happy existence. They have a nice home in the Colonia Roma district of the city (hence the title of the picture, which doubles as a tribute to Federico Fellini, who made a movie with the same title and is a clear influence on Cuarón). They are wealthy enough to benefit from the live-in help provided by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the movie’s protagonist, and Adela (Nancy García).
But things are falling apart: the collapse of the marriage of dad Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is shielded from children Pepe (Marco Graf), Sofi (Daniela Demesa), Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey) and Paco (Carlos Peralta Jacobson), while Cleo’s devotion to the family becomes challenged by a personal crisis of her own.
Cuarón reveals the extent of this profound heartache by portraying the slow degradation of everyday happy existence, with seamless long takes and inquisitive camera movements that weave the audience into the fabric of this world. Scenes of domestic bliss become subverted: a wide shot of the family gathered together and happily watching television when Antonio returns home is paralleled with his car hurriedly pulling away from Sofia, departing for another "business trip" with no return in sight.
The filmmaker observes the family from the perspective of Cleo, who loves these children with every ounce of her being but in her heart can never fully escape the reality that she is tucking someone else’s kids into bed at night.
In the movie’s most astonishing sequence, a feat of such monumental filmmaking that it is surely destined to rank among the all-time greats, a promise of a life of her own becomes irrevocably shattered. On an everyday trip to a furniture store, the world around her collapses into unrestrained bloody violence.
It is the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 10, 1971, in which the Mexican army killed a multitude of student demonstrators. Cuarón depicts reams of chaos and devastation seen through a department store window and in passing as his camera tracks through the streets. The ominous scene becomes more and more centralized for Cleo and Teresa (Verónica García), Sofia’s mother, before it directly threatens them, leaving profound wreckage in its wake.
The horror is shown without a filter, its impact revealed in unrelenting form. It is a masterful, visceral orchestration of terror and sadness on an enormous scale, in which the world beyond Cleo’s control imposes itself in a way that can never be forgotten.
The movie continues after this, and there is more sadness and devastation to be felt. But there is also great joy and purpose. It’s found in the comfort of a warm, loving embrace, the pleasures offered by an ice cream cone and other small, everyday things and the commitment to raising children so that they can take off in one of those planes darting across the sky, to find themselves and return home so they can make a better world.