It’s understandable if you approach Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” with caution. It could be described, fairly if dismissively, as the best movie a man has ever made about his nanny. It’s shot in a lustrous wide-screen black-and-white that in the wrong hands might aestheticize the very people it claims to love. It’s over two hours long and it’s coming out during Oscar season, so it must be Good For You. All reasons to step gingerly into a theater.
But, oh, how gentle, wide, wise, and true this movie is! How immediately it engrosses us in lives like ours and lives we rarely stop to consider. How generous is its gaze, enfolding cruelty and kindness in its embrace, seeing the rich, busy daily life that overflows the foreground and the political realities that hang behind the scenes like a background hum. Like all the best films, “Roma” is achingly specific while constantly opening up to the universal.
The movie is set in 1970, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City that’s known colloquially as Roma. A prosperous doctor, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and his wife, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), live in a two-story Art Deco row house with their four children and the wife’s aging mother (Verónica García). A maid, Adela (Nancy García García), and a nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), live in cramped quarters above the garage. The lowest person in the house’s hierarchy, Cleo is the center of the film.
A country girl, from a dusty Mixtec village somewhere in Oaxaca, she is shy, warm, quietly vibrant. She loves the children; the children love her. (Aparicio is a first-time actor but no “found object” playing herself; the performance is real, immediate, and honestly observed.) “Roma” opens under the credits with a close-up of the floor tiles of the carport being laved with soapy suds – Cleo once more washing away the family dog’s waste — and in the reflection of the water we see a distant plane crossing the sky above the courtyard. That is this movie in a fractal: macro and micro held lovingly in the same frame.
Cleo has a suitor named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a cousin of Adela’s boyfriend. He is handsome, lean, street-tough, smooth-talking; she is unworldly. He is also a slum kid who feels he was “rescued” by his martial arts training, and the connection between that and the country’s gathering political powder keg — students protesting in the streets, paramilitary groups gearing up to shut them down — is one that “Roma” lets us calculate for ourselves. The background of the movie’s pointillistic soundscape is filled with distant marching bands and fireworks that may be gunshots, or vice versa.
Cleo suffers a personal crisis around the same time Dr. Antonio leaves his wife for another woman; the bonds that fray and strengthen throughout “Roma” cross obdurate lines of gender as well as class, race, ethnicity, education, urbanity. “We are alone,” Sofía tells Cleo after stumbling home drunk one desperate night. “No matter what they say, we women, we are alone.”
That Sofía also takes out her anxious rage on the nanny goes without saying. Without stooping to the podium and without ever losing empathy for all concerned, Cuarón is very concise and clear about the entitlements and blindnesses of the master/servant relationship. “Roma“ is a welcome corrective to a film like “The Help” (and, to a different degree, the current “Green Book”) in that it sees its outsider hero through the neutral gaze of a dispassionate onlooker (or a movie camera) instead of the eyes of a white or upper-class savior.
Here, the family recedes into the medium-shot middle distance, even the children who in a different movie would assume the gauzy narrative duties. One of the three sons is probably a stand-in for the director, but to the movie’s great credit, we never learn which, even though we come to know each of the children in their often touching individuality.
Instead, Cuarón uses his prodigious moviemaking skills to immerse us in a world of rough wonder. He served as his own cinematographer, and the filmmaking is made of deep, stately long-shots and camera pans rather than hectically-cut “realism” — the movie has the feel of an epic tableau that at times enters the surreal through the back door of the hyperreal. (The title nods as much to Fellini as to Mexico City.) “Roma” can pack an entire world into a shot inside a movie theater, Cleo and Fermin nuzzling in the foreground, the crowded seats stretching away to the screen showing a German war comedy (!) in the far rear, while only we understand that Cleo’s life is about to come unglued.
Details dazzle and disrupt. A human cannonball at a political rally in the background of a muddy village square. The mounted heads of family dogs in an upper-class hacienda, or the way a New Year’s Eve party spills out into fields accidentally set on fire, a celebration of disaster. An utterly miraculous climactic sequence on a Veracruz beach, Cuarón’s camera recording a dance along the line between life and death.
Please note: The US distributor of “Roma” is Netflix, and the film will be appearing on that streaming service in due time. That said, those who wait to see it on a smaller screen rather than the largest possible are doing themselves a grave disservice.
There are in-jokes. When the family packs itself off to a neighborhood moviehouse, the feature playing is “Marooned” (1969), a film whose plot is remarkably similar to that of Cuarón’s previous release, the Oscar-winning “Gravity.” (That was a very good movie. “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” from 2001, is better still. “Roma” bids fair to be his best.) But the humor that wafts insistently and discreetly through this film is that of the broader human comedy, which involves hardships and tears, inequity, endurance, connection and loss and connection, and the most open and forgiving lens possible through which to take in our curious species. Notably, there is no score in “Roma.” Cuarón understands we make the music ourselves.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero. At Kendall Square. 135 minutes. R (graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language). In Spanish and Mixtecan, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.