‘Roma’ Film Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Intimate Epic Proves Less Is More

This intimate tale of a housekeeper in early-70s Mexico proves the “Gravity” director doesn’t need a sprawling canvas to tell a powerful story

Roma Alfonso Cuaron
"Roma" / Netflix

“Tell me, why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to perceive one moment of reality?” asks Wallace Shawn in “My Dinner with Andre.” “I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!”

There are no cigar stores in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” but after zipping us through a future dystopia in “Children of Men” and all of outer space in “Gravity,” the director takes us through a far more quotidian version of reality in his gorgeous new film. And it did, admittedly, blow my brains out.

Shot in 65mm black-and-white — please, Netflix, let audiences see this movie projected in 70mm before it hits your streaming service — the film remains mostly housebound to tell us the story of a bourgeois family in Mexico City in the 1970s, mostly as viewed by their housekeeper, Cleo (first-timer Yalitza Aparicio). And whatever “Roma” lacks in terms of pyrotechnics or visual-effects splendor (relatively speaking, anyway), it more than makes up for with emotion and humanity.

There are, to be sure, impressive set pieces and powerful scenes, but it’s the quiet, quotidian moments that give the film its impact. Having seemingly mastered the Hollywood blockbuster, Cuarón appears to be setting his sights on a more intimate kind of filmmaking along the lines of the cinema’s great humanists, like Yasujiro Ozu or Lucretia Martel. (The interactions between Cleo and her employers suggest a kinder take on the latter’s 2001 debut film, “La Ciénaga.”)

Set in the early 1970s, the film opens with a lengthy sequence of Cleo scrubbing the driveway, the water reflecting the jets that fly overhead. She’s cleaning up the prodigious amounts of poop created by the family dog, and his despoiling of the carport is one of few constants for her employers over the course of the year. In 12 months, the master of the house will move out, Cleo will be seduced and abandoned by her boyfriend, and she and her employer alike will face the fallout from these events.

Among Cuarón’s many accomplishments here is his ability to weave his cinephilia into the story in a way that’s organic and never self-conscious. The local movie palace plays a key role in the characters’ lives, whether it’s a pregnant Cleo being betrayed by her boyfriend as the closing scenes of “La Grande Vadrouille” play out on screen or one of the family’s children witnessing something he shouldn’t before walking in to see “Marooned.”

And while “Roma” refers to the neighborhood in Mexico City where the film is set, it could certainly serve as a shout-out to Fellini, whose film of the same name probably played in that same movie theater the year after this one is set; the Italian maestro would definitely approve of beautifully off-kilter moments like a New Year’s Eve party where wealthy landowners drink and sing while the campesinos extinguish a forest fire, or a scene of Cleo trudging through the muddy streets of a poor neighborhood while, in the background, a political rally features a human-cannonball act.

The press notes say that the film is Cuarón’s salute to the women who helped raise him, and “Roma” explores the strangely symbiotic relationship that can develop between employer and household servant; the mother (the impressive Marina de Tavira) often refers to Cleo as “a member of the family,” and the film lets us see the ways that this is actually true (they take care of her during her pregnancy) and the ways that it is not (she and another maid share a tiny room up a tall staircase, above that carport).

The ensemble is well cast throughout, with even the performers in the smallest roles making an impact. Ultimately, this is Aparicio’s show: She communicates both in Spanish and an indigenous dialect known as Mixteca, but she’s got the expressive eyes of a silent-film goddess. One of the film’s most wrenching scenes is just a hold on Cleo’s face, and Aparicio turns the moment into the screen’s most powerful close-up since Nicole Kidman in “Birth.”

(There’s a doctoral thesis waiting to be written about motherhood in Cuarón’s films, both in terms of absence (“A Little Princess,” “Great Expectations”) and presence (“Children of Men,” “Gravity”). Throw in a colon and a reference to “Y Tu Mamá También,” and the title writes itself.)

“Roma” offers plenty of Cuarón-ian flourishes throughout — from a violent street protest that bursts into a placid furniture store to long tracking shots of busy, period-dressed Mexico City streets — but keeping the camera on Yalitza Aparicio is all the director needs to do to hold our attention. Whether or not Netflix audiences will respond to this film’s subtle delights on a small screen, Alfonso Cuarón has created a heartfelt masterpiece of mood and nostalgia, one that reminds us that his gifts as a storyteller and an interpreter of the human experience are not dictated by scale of production.

For the record: A previous version of this review included unfounded speculation about the title of this film.