No contemporary filmmaker has shown the versatility of style and subject that Alfonso Cuarón has. Cuarón first got noticed in this country with his fourth film, Y Tu Mamá También, an earthy, raunchy road comedy that played as if Henry Miller had written an ode to the horny sons of the Mexico City bourgeoisie. He zigged from Mamá to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the first film that hinted that series could be something more than competently filmed illustrations of J. K. Rowling’s books. Cuarón had already had experience adapting children’s literature. His first American film was a startlingly sensual adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. The movie has such vividness of detail and intensity of emotion that you surrender to it just as you might have surrendered to Burnett when you read her as a child (or, as I first did, in my twenties). Cuarón followed A Little Princess with his marvelous modern-day version of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Pip and Estella roles. It was not a happy experience. The studio, Twentieth Century Fox, interfered with the film, removing it from its scheduled Christmas release date and dumping it into theaters in the dead month of January. Most critics were happy to follow the studio’s lead and dismiss it, and Cuarón himself reportedly doesn’t like it, but along with David Lean’s 1946 version of the same novel and Carol Reed’s 1968 Oliver!, it’s the best Dickens film, lush and strange and true to its source as well as to its own vision. The late film critic Robin Wood cited it as an example of a movie adaptation that was faithful yet so free that viewers forgot about the source and entered fully into the world the film created.
After the Harry Potter film, Cuarón turned to another unlikely literary source, the mystery novelist P. D. James’s Children of Men, transforming her rather sour conservative dystopia about a future in which childbirth has ceased into what the critic Amy Nicholson called “a grim nativity.” Perhaps the only fitting equivalent to Children of Men is Ingmar Bergman’s greatest film, the 1968 Shame, which, like Cuarón’s movie, gives as bleak a view of the future and of human nature as could be imagined without ever becoming inhuman itself. Like Bergman’s movie, Children of Men knocked you flat.
So did Cuarón’s last film, Gravity, in which a space shuttle is destroyed, leaving two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) floating in the cosmos while trying to rescue themselves. Despite its epic setting Gravity is perhaps the most intimate of all Cuarón’s work: we are alone with the only human presence in the vastness of space, and the furious will to survive flickers against the overwhelming fact of our mortality and our insignificance when measured against creation. Gravity felt like an implicit refutation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film showed no feeling for the passing of its human characters, bland to begin with, but welcomed rebirth via technological advancement represented by the gooey symbolism of the Keane-eyed star child. (The film’s famous final image looks like one of Operation Rescue’s more acceptable posters.) Gravity, on the other hand, beginning in space, was a passionate odyssey of return to earth and thus an implicit return to all that is human. Its final image, Sandra Bullock taking tentative steps on terra firma, couldn’t help but recall Kubrick’s apes walking upright. But instead of people being left behind in the chain of cosmic evolution, Cuarón gave us a pilgrim returning home, intensely aware of and grateful for her humanity.
If Gravity was an epic film told intimately, Cuarón’s latest film, Roma, is an intimate story told on an epic scale. Most scenes contain only a few characters, and even at its height the drama never dwarfs the people on-screen. This chronicle of a year in the life of a young maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for a Mexico City family of the professional class (the father is a doctor, the mother teaches biochemistry), begins in fall 1970 and Cleo is the movie’s warm, gently beating heart. From moment to moment Roma (the title is the name of the neighborhood where the film takes place) is a very quiet film. And yet you walk out of it reaching to the greatest movies for comparison. A New Year’s gathering of the upper-middle class, all of them content within their own self-constructed bubble, has echoes of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. But especially in two extended sequences toward the end, Roma recalls Vittorio de Sica at his greatest. As de Sica did, Cuarón removes any barrier between the audience and the people on-screen. By the time the dramatic climaxes arrive, we’re unprotected and overwhelmed, stunned by the artistry of what we’re seeing, and knowing emotionally that we will carry them with us from this point on.
And yet in execution, Roma is like no other great humanist film. When a movie combines a humanist sensibility and a working-class protagonist, it is almost automatically claimed to be neorealist, and Roma is not. The calm tone and naturalistic surface may keep some from seeing just how stylized it is. Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer and photographed the film in a grainless black and white that seems to combine soft and luminous light with the encroaching gray mists of memory. Most of the movie has been shot from the middle distance, in slow, sometimes circular pans, the camera moving through the set keeping the characters in mostly medium shot. At moments, we find ourselves looking at the crowded frame—a Mexico City street outside a movie theater; a New Year’s Eve celebration in the country—and only gradually does the shot’s point of focus, usually Cleo, become apparent. It’s strange to talk about a film that is so emotionally close, yet leaves you, after it is over, with vivid memories of the face of only the main character (and, to a lesser extent, the faces of the female head of the household, Señora Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, and her mother, Señora Teresa, played by Verónica García).
The method takes some getting used to–and it may prove to be too subtle for some viewers. Edmund Wilson once described the work of the Moscow Art Theater as “the art of steady under-emphasis and effects that are slowly unfolded.” Cuarón sets this pace from the beginning. Roma opens on an extended close-up of the paving stones of the entryway to the family house. We hear a bucket being filled and then scrubbing sounds. Gradually we see water and soap suds trickle down into the frame. The camera tilts up to show Cleo in the midst of her chores. We follow her through the house, gathering sheets, picking up the youngest boy (there are three of them, and a girl) from school, returning home and heading up to the roof to do laundry. It’s a slow, deliberate sequence of life progressing through the banal routine of chores. And yet it’s not meant to convey banality or meaninglessness. Cuarón’s method here is one of gradual immersion, like a new sponge being laid on top of water. Bit by bit we become saturated with the atmosphere, even if we never quite merge with it. We are in the same position as Cleo, in this world and yet not quite part of it. The point, of course, is that we are in the same position as Cleo herself, in this world and yet not quite part of it. Over the course of the year in which we follow Cleo, the family she works for will experience its own upheavals as the father leaves to live with his mistress; Cleo will become pregnant by her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and lose the baby; and, for her and the family, life will go on.
What feels like the distance from which we watch Cleo is actually part of Cuarón’s particular method here: he has acknowledged the film as autobiographical, a tribute to Libo, the maid who took care of him as a child. (The film is dedicated to her.) The events of the film mirror his own upbringing. By centering the film on Cleo Cuarón is performing an act of self-effacement. The critics who have talked about Roma as being about the filmmaker’s childhood have missed the point. Placing the characters based on himself and his family in the background, Cuarón focuses on the person taken for granted amidst the swirl of family life. He empathizes with Cleo yet does not presume he can fully know what’s going on inside her. Had he done that, it is a dull certainty that he would have faced criticism for imposing his voice on a character of a different class and gender.
That choice hasn’t prevented Cuarón from facing the ire of those who want to claim that because we see Cleo largely during her working hours, Cuarón pretends sympathy for a working-class woman but never gives her a voice of her own. This is a strange charge coming from film critics who, supposedly trained in reading the visual, might be able to infer what’s going on inside Cleo from Cuarón’s consistent focus on the tension playing itself out on Yalitza Aparicio’s face–between what she is feeling and the social mask that she must maintain. In choosing to identify with the outsider rather than the characters he must surely know best, Cuarón is testing himself, demanding of himself the empathy that is the indispensable essence of humanist art.
As Cleo, Aparicio, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher from the Mexican state of Oaxaca who had never acted before, is in the great tradition of the nonprofessionals de Sica used in Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine, and Umberto D. It would be wrong to say there is no art in her performance; rather, I’d say, there is none of the artifice that would cause her to comment on Cleo, to signal her emotions to the camera, as opposed to what she does, which is to exist in front of the camera naturally, unaffectedly. Aparicio has an oval-shaped face and somewhat sad eyes that are completely open, and yet Cleo, being a servant, has to take care to guard her emotions. And so the performance carries the feel of what it means simply to get on with life, neither stifling our emotions nor allowing ourselves to become incapacitated by them. It’s miraculous.
The contradictions of Cleo’s position are conveyed in one tangled moment when she joins the members of the family, who are settled in the den watching a comedy show on TV. Cleo kneels by the couch and one of the boys, with no fuss, puts his arm around her shoulders. In the midst of this, Señora Sofia tells Cleo to get her husband some tea. There’s no meanness to it, but it breaks the intimacy of the moment between Cleo and the boy, stating the barrier that not even the proverbial servant who’s like a member of the family can cross.
And yet no one treats Cleo as if she were property. When she has to confess to Señora Sofia that she’s pregnant, she’s treated with genuine tenderness and reassured that this does nothing to change her place in the family home. Señora Sofia provides prenatal care and accompanies Cleo to medical appointments. Señora Teresa goes with her to pick out a crib. Cuarón knows the difference between the characters whose empathy is, if not hobbled, at least regulated by their awareness of class, and the ones who are incapable of empathy, such as Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin. When Fermin gets out of the bed in which he and Cleo have been spending a stolen afternoon so he can demonstrate his martial arts moves, the sequence recalls the scene in John Schlesinger’s film of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd in which Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy displays his swordsmanship for Julie Christie’s Bathsheba Everdene. But there’s a swagger in Troy, a sense of just how much he enjoys showing off; in Fermin and his hard, dead eyes, we sense a cold efficiency.
Just how cold becomes apparent in the movie’s most gut-wrenching sequence, in which the political turmoil that has stayed in the background (the “Guerra sucia” between Mexico’s ruling PRI party and opposing groups of guerrillas and leftists) bursts out and sweeps Cleo into it. This passage, which lasts for nearly ten minutes as the consequences of Fermin and Cleo’s final encounter escalate, moves with the inevitable, inescapable unfolding of tragedy. Its execution is as clear an example as I can recall of the difference between the hacks who exploit calamity and violence to manipulate an audience’s emotions, and those rare artists who intensify our feelings so that we respond as deeply as possible even though we know our hearts will, from that moment on, be wounded by what we see.
Cuarón cannot top that sequence, but he equals it with a long, agonizing scene set at the seaside that, as Gravity did, makes us feel the majesty and fury of the natural world, our helplessness in the face of it, and the simultaneous fragility and vitality of life.
I don’t wish to give the impression that because these sequences are the biggest and most overtly dramatic in the movie they are somehow the payoff of Roma, the reward for putting up with the seemingly ordinary moments that surround it. These scenes are the most overt manifestation of what is happening in those deceptively inconsequential moments: they are the culmination of what the movie’s accretion of detail builds toward, an awareness of the depths that connect the characters to one another as well as to what stands in the way of those connections, the realities of class and the cross-currents of circumstance.
Like an increasing number of new films, Roma opened in a few theaters before becoming available to stream on Netflix–though both its visual beauty and the size of its vision demand that it be seen on the big screen. I’m grateful the film is widely available, and I don’t wish to sound churlish when presented with the gift of a film as great as this one. But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that, even if the film were available only to art-house audiences, I’d worry that moviegoers have become too conditioned by spectacle and obviousness, and too impatient to watch a movie that demands patience, whose claim to being epic lies in the steady gathering of emotional force rather than in physical scale or in pummeling the audience. And if that happens, it will be audiences who have lost out, because Roma affirms that it’s still possible for great movies to be made. Not simply good ones, not films that are a respite from the surrounding glut, but movies that are conceived and executed on a level that even good films don’t aspire to. Roma is one of those works that leave you feeling as if every nerve ending were open, revitalized, both exalted and firmly tethered to the earth. Which is a way of saying that, at this horrible moment in our history, Alfonso Cuarón’s film makes you grateful to be alive.
CHARLES TAYLOR is author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American 70s (Bloomsbury Books).