Starring Yalitza Aparicio. In Spanish and Mixtec, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
A faraway jet is reflected in water splashing across the smooth tiles of a Mexican courtyard—a poetic juxtaposition of flight with earthbound roots, especially when you realize that the cleansing is aiming for random mounds of dog shit.
A neglected canine is just one family member seemingly trapped in the mostly comforting confines of a middle-class home in the pleasant quarter of Mexico City called Roma. The title refers to Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood home and to the postwar style of Italian neorealism he both honours and undermines in this dreamlike childhood memoir. Set at the end of 1970, this is a highly aestheticized labour of love for the almost impossibly eclectic writer-director, who made the Brit-styled A Little Princess before his Spanish-language breakthrough, Y Tu Mamá También.
He also shot and edited the 135-minute movie, in wide-screen black and white, unsweetened by incidental music but boasting phenomenal sound design to go with the dialogue-light storytelling. This sustained, grey-toned reverie centres less on the family, with three children gradually awakening to the absence of their father, and more on that brood’s dependence on the help.
Played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who came to a casting call never having heard of Cuarón, Cleo is cleaner, housemaid, shopper, and indispensable shoulder to the children and, as things get worse, their mother (Marina de Tavira). She speaks Spanish with them, but Mixtec—a collection of Indigenous languages in the impoverished Oaxaca region—with roommate and fellow servant Adela (Nancy García García), who mostly sticks to the kitchen.
The upstairs-downstairs structure makes you think the tale will alternate between two worlds. But when the camera leaves this cozy urban enclave, it’s to follow Cleo, both on her daily chores and into more extreme apparitions. There’s an emphasis on the quotidian, including the expected results when she meets a handsome young man (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) with an intense interest in martial arts. But just as you think you’re entering telenovela territory, you get bravura sequences including a flash earthquake, a massacre of student protesters, a man shot from a cannon, and wealthy New Year’s Eve partiers putting out a forest fire with drinks still in hand.
The nonrealistic influences of Fellini and Tarkovsky are evident here, and Cuarón’s surrogate clan makes frequent trips to the cinema. One sequence, from the 1969 space opera Marooned, obviously leads to the director’s Gravity. But this beautiful new movie—probably the best of the year—is far more than a collection of memorial fragments; the politics of race, class, gender, and art are expertly swirled in the menudo pot of modern life. Taste it.