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Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Reviewed | The New Yorker

The last film made by Alfonso Cuarón, five years ago, was “Gravity,” in which Sandra Bullock floated through space, evading debris caused by a Russian missile strike and hitching a ride on a Chinese reëntry capsule. By contrast, Cuarón’s new film, “Roma,” is in black-and-white, and the star, Yalitza Aparicio, has never acted before. Most of the story is set in Roma, a pleasant suburb of Mexico City, in 1970 and 1971, and the special effects are largely confined to dog mess. The earlier movie cost a hundred million dollars; the new one, reportedly, a tenth of that sum. Let us hope that such dizzying career moves become culturally commonplace, and that Metallica will soon reform as a piano quartet, with a series of lunchtime concerts at the Frick.

Aparicio plays a maid named Cleo. She hails from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, but we never glimpse her home, for she has taken root in another household, in the capital, and gives no sign of wishing to leave. Alongside her is her fellow-servant, Adela (Nancy García), with whom she shares a room; after the daily toil, they exercise together before bed, laughing as they try to touch their toes. Although they speak Spanish to their employers, the two women tend to converse in a Mixtec language, and the movie is a babel, ceaselessly attuned to both human and animal tongues: canine barks, the croon of a bedtime lullaby, the moans of mothers in labor in a maternity wing. A knife-grinder passes down the street, announcing his services with the toot of a bird whistle.

The family for whom Cleo works—and who, we soon realize, would barely function without her—is headed by Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor. His first appearance is a daunting one. A Ford Galaxy, shining and growling, inches into the garage beside the house, with a shadowy figure at the wheel. Waiting in anticipation are his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), two of their four young children, and Cleo. We expect a proud paterfamilias to step forth, instead of which a bearded fusspot emerges: distracted, half attentive, already preparing to leave on a business trip. At once we know in our gut that this man will not stay the course, and that the drama will be played out, and upheld, by the other characters. As Sofia, a little the worse (and the more confiding) for drink, says to Cleo later on, “No matter what they tell you—women, we are always alone.”

The movie is founded on Cuarón’s own childhood, and, as he goes in search of that time, any stray Proustians in the audience will be struck by two aspects of his quest. First, the more microscopic the memory the more readily we believe it. Second, the enfolding presences are female. Consider the closeup of a boiled egg that Cleo taps and cracks for the youngest child, Pepe (Marco Graf), spooning the warm, gelatinous contents into a china cup. (Proust’s narrator likewise recalls the flat plates, adorned with pictures, on which his aunt liked her “creamed eggs” to be served.) On the rooftop, Cleo does the family’s washing and hangs it up to dry; sunlight gleams through the white lace and cotton in a beatific haze. Pepe is idling there one day, and the two of them, the maid and the boy, lie down with eyes closed, pretending to be lifeless. “I like being dead,” Cleo remarks, and fans of Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) will remember the heroine who cradles a small girl in shallow waters, saying, “Let’s see you float like a corpse.” In neither case is there anything bleak or creepy in the words. Both women are simply slipping into the kids’ imaginative games.

Cuarón is in fruitful territory here. After “A Little Princess” (1995) and the best of the Hogwarts films, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004), he made “Children of Men” (2006), which shudders with horror at the prospect of a childless world. No surprise, then, that “Roma” should reverberate not only with innocence but with the awful intuition of its collapse. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Pepe’s older brothers, Paco (Carlos Peralta) and Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), scrap in the hallway. Nothing new in that, until one of them hurls something hard and heavy at the other, who ducks. It smashes the glass panel behind him, and both boys stop, rendered blank and mute by the nearness of genuine harm. And we know, as they also know but cannot yet digest, the cause of battle: their father has gone, and he will not be coming back. They are now the men of the house, and already they are trashing it in their distress.

The most significant child in “Roma” is the one that Cleo carries inside her. On a day off, she has an assignation with a friend named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and gets pregnant. She tells him so at the cinema, with a comedy playing in the background; he goes to the bathroom and never returns. (Another vanishing man.) She also tells Sofia, asking meekly, “Are you going to fire me?” The answer is no, and so it is, months later, with the baby almost due, that Cleo and Teresa (Verónica García), Sofia’s elderly mother, visit a furniture store to buy a crib. Suddenly, there is a commotion outside. The women turn to the window and find themselves gazing at a full-blown riot, with student protesters being harried down the street by riot squads. One youth is pursued into the store and killed, whereupon Fermín, of all people, appears with a revolver in his hand, and a wild stare. Just as we’re wondering what else this benighted day will inflict on poor Cleo, her water breaks.

Not everyone will be seduced by “Roma,” and those who resist it will point to this crucial scene. Is it not too pat, fusing the personal crisis with a public upheaval and wringing meaning out of mere coincidence? Indeed, is the entire movie not stacked with fancy visual rhymes: the airplane high in the sky, for instance, that is mirrored in a flood of soapy water at the start and repeated in the final shot, or the two boys dressed as astronauts—the rich one, in his silvery costume, tramping through the woods, and the poor one, with a plastic bucket for a helmet, parading through a slum? And, if the echo implies that all children, whatever their social origins, are as one in their dreaming, is that not proof of the film’s political complacency? Though the mayhem outside the furniture store refers to a real event (the Corpus Christi Massacre of June, 1971, in which scores of demonstrators died), Cuarón makes no attempt to explain it, and nothing is more telling than the sight of Cleo glassed off from the scenes of revolt, as if they were beyond her comprehension. How can she, an indigenous member of the rural working class, find succor and satisfaction—even love—in fulfilling the needs of the upper bourgeoisie? Why must she kiss their kids good night?

All those charges are valid. Nothing will be fomented by the film. The bridling wrath of the underclass that we find in Italian neorealism—“I curse the day I was born,” is the hero’s cry in “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)—is wholly absent, and there’s not a whisper of the anarchistic mischief practiced by Buñuel in “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964), in which the aging patriarch kneels down to unfasten the boots of a bored underling. Yet here’s the thing: “Roma” is persuasive in its beauty. It wins you over. The face of Aparicio, in the leading role, is not placidly resigned but serene in its stoicism, and if she is less a participant than a bystander during the major convulsions of the era, well, few of us can claim to be much more. Cuarón himself is the director of photography on the movie, which glories in its tranquil surveys of domestic space, with the camera panning round the living room, and in the tracking shots that usher us through the action—left to right, right to left, to and fro, along furrowed fields and crowded avenues, as if the filmmaker were trying to keep pace with his thoughts while they carry him into the past. Some of them trespass on the surreal, as when, on New Year’s Eve, we come across revellers, in evening dress, helping to extinguish a forest fire. All roads lead to “Roma.”

And so to the climax. The fatherless family is on a beach vacation, and two of the kids get into trouble, sucked in and swamped by the breakers. Cleo, who can’t swim, goes in to save them, and the camera follows—not plunging in with her, in a salty rush of panic, but staying to one side, at a distance, to observe her efforts. That might sound clinical, yet something miraculous happens: the scene becomes more emotionally draining, not less, because of the bright sunshine that gilds the crests of the menacing waves, and because of the Cleo-like calmness with which Cuarón bears witness to peril. After the final credits, the words “Shantih shantih shantih” appear, as they do at the end of “The Waste Land,” yet the film—smooth, unchoppy, self-contained—could hardly be further from Eliot’s poem. Do not look to “Roma” for the bristle of agony or dread. It is the clarity of Cuarón’s eye, and the sea-like sway of his remembrance, that compel you to trust the tale he tells. ♦

ViaNewYorker