Updated 12/5 at 3:15 p.m. to correct misspellings of Yalitza Aparicio and Tlatelolco massacre.
There's a school of cinematic thought, popularized by the French critic Andre Bazin, that emphasizes camera movement, long takes and composition in depth. The theory, which I happen to embrace if not dogmatize, holds that these elements create a heightened sense of realism and visual purity.
Bazin would absolutely love Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's immersive, bittersweet look back at life in Mexico City in the early '70s. This is one of the best-looking (and best-sounding) movies in recent memory, a movable feast that gives the eye ample room to wander, to explore, to probe visual compositions in which something seems to be happening on every plane. Cuarón applied this approach to the loneliness of space in Gravity, but the effect is even more powerful here, on the ground, where a bourgeois family and a young servant fight through everyday life in gorgeous black and white.
The servant is Cleo, played by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio, who gives one of the year's most affecting performances. She watches over a family that isn't quite as well off as it seems: steely mother (Marina de Tavira, also first-rate), absent father, cute, bickering kids who sense something is wrong but don't quite know what it is.
Cuarón, who also served as Roma's cinematographer, turns life inside their house into a miniature universe, slowly panning from room to room, floor to floor, always with a patient rhythm that lets you soak up every detail. Roma will be showing on Netflix, but do yourself a favor and see it during its brief theatrical run. It should be experienced big.
Outside the residence is a world teeming with vitality and danger. Student protests draw savage police response. People are killed in the streets. Young couples make out in ornate movie palaces. A weekend in the country turns into an inferno set over a land dispute, resulting in a sequence that would make Goya or Bruegel nod in approval. But Roma never turns into an empty exercise in virtuosity. The images are firmly rooted in character and story, thought and feeling.
Roma is rapturous regardless of whether you know the time and place it portrays, but it will surely resonate even deeper for those familiar with the tumult of Mexico City. This was just two years after the brutality surrounding the 1968 Summer Olympics and the Tlatelolco massacre of civilians by the military and police in October of that year. Cuarón was a child during this period, and Roma is quite autobiographical, an unsentimental reminiscence. His investment in the material is evident in every frame.
In the end, the film belongs to Aparicio, whose unmannered performance gives Roma an extra dimension of poetic realism. Cuarón doesn't shy from the implicit misogyny of the film's setting, experienced by Cleo, used and abandoned by a callow revolutionary, and by her boss, Sofia, left to manage the household as her husband dallies in his midlife crisis. "No matter what they tell you," Sofia tells Cleo in a moment of drunken candor, "women always are alone." It's a piercing moment in a movie laden with them, a lonely but defiant cry in a harsh but beautiful world.
Rated R (graphic nudity, some disturbing images and language). 135 minutes. At the Magnolia Dec. 6-13; on Netflix Dec. 14.