Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie Roma, named for the fashionable bourgeois neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up and where the movie is set, begins with a still close-up of floor tiles. They’re plain; they seem to be made of a composite of cement and either crushed stone or crushed brick. From off screen there comes a slosh of water, soon followed by more sloshes as well as sounds of trickling and brushing. Something is being cleaned. Before the viewer can figure out what, water rushes into the frame, lightly sudsy. As it washes over the tiles, it brings on its quicksilver surface a bright reflection, which, as the water steadies, unfurls, wavering, into a rectangle. Subsequent sloshes ripple the rectangle away, but repeatedly, wobblingly, it reassembles itself. When a small airplane, perfectly in focus, softly droning, sails across it, we realize we are looking at a reflection of open sky.
A child left alone in a sunny yard might play such a game of noticing. It’s a beautiful emblem of moviemaking, reflection and water doing the work of lenses and film. There’s a similar sequence in Terence Davies’s movie The Long Day Closes (1992), when Davies’s camera lingers on a patch of sun as it shifts slowly along a bedroom carpet. In Davies’s movie, the implied perspective is Davies’s own as a young boy; from his patient fascination with the ray of sunlight the viewer infers that his vocation as a filmmaker is born. The sensibility through which Cuarón’s movie is perceived, however, is a more complex construction.
Perhaps Cuarón himself, as a child in 1970, noticed such reflections in his family’s driveway, but the movie slowly, gently suggests another possible origin: the young Mixtec woman cleaning the driveway. In the movie, she is called Cleo, a role played contemplatively and with fine understatement by Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actress. The character is based on Liboria Rodríguez, who worked as a nanny in Cuarón’s family when he was a child and has remained close to the filmmaker; Cuarón has dedicated the movie to her. In the movie, Cleo is not only responsible for washing the driveway but also for sweeping, doing the laundry, fetching the family’s four children home from school, singing lullabies, and, in general, being present for the children in a way the parents are unable to, in part because they’re busy professionals—he’s a doctor, she’s a chemistry professor—and in part because they’re going through a divorce.
Cleo appears in almost every scene, far more often than Paco, the son who appears to be a fictionalization of Cuarón’s younger self. But even though the movie opens by looking through her eyes—a perspective on the driveway that returns at a crucial moment later, from a steeper camera angle—it isn’t told merely from her point of view. It seems to convey her perceptions as they might have been reflected in the observations, intuitions, imaginations, and memories of Paco and the rest of the family, which is also to say, as they must have been remembered, reconstructed, sharpened, and deepened by the moviemaker’s adult intelligence. Cuarón seems to be trying to tell his story from a transitional space between the mother-like Cleo and the family she serves.
The politics of that transitional space are delicate. Cleo lives in the bosom of the family but has few privileges in it, as we see when, in an early scene, she briefly sits to join the family as they watch a comic skit on television and is ordered by the mother to brew the father a cup of chamomile tea. “No, because she’s with me,” protests the youngest son, Pepe, beside whom she’s sitting, but Cleo, who must do her duty, gets up. The mother isn’t portrayed as heartless—in fact, the movie celebrates the family’s love for Cleo as genuine—but it is clear that Cleo’s intimacy with her employers is to some extent made possible by the class difference between them.
There are even hints that the class difference is part of a larger social structure that is unjust, and in which the bourgeois family that employs Cleo is to some extent implicated. Cleo learns at one point, for example, that soldiers have come to take the land where her mother lives, and learns at another point that a land deal by a relative of her employers who lives in the country made locals there so angry that they poisoned one of his dogs. It is perhaps a sign of the movie’s good intentions that its story as well as its perspective is shared. In the course of the movie, the children are disillusioned about the nature of their parents’ marriage, and Cleo’s heart is broken in a love affair that involves an unplanned pregnancy—but if anything, Cleo’s storyline is the more compelling.
That’s a somewhat inappropriate way to phrase it, because the spirit of the movie is very much about imagining a way of looking at the world in which such stories needn’t be in competition. However much the intimacy between Cleo and her employers’ children may have been structured or conditioned by social and economic bias, the intimacy between them was real, the movie insists. To the children, in fact, it may have felt more real than their relationship with their biological parents. Cuarón’s genius is that he is able to induce an appreciation just as vivid in the viewer. From the first scenes, the sensory details of the world he paints, the leisurely pace with which he paints it, and his nonjudgmental comprehensiveness attach themselves to a viewer’s heartstrings.
We hear birds chattering in their cages, and we hear Cleo flushing a toilet under the stairs. The family dog leaps excitedly at the prospect of the children coming home from school, and it turns out that it’s the dog’s poops that Cleo was scrubbing from the driveway in the opening shot. Dog poop later becomes a small but telling plot point, and something of a symbol, as will make sense to anyone who has been the caretaker of a pet, infant, or invalid and has had to learn not to mind its dailiness and its inevitability. What better sign of domesticity, and even of intimacy more generally? Of course the dog poop is also an occasion for the movie’s sly sense of humor, equally manifest when the father maneuvers his hulking Ford Galaxy, of which he is evidently quite proud, into a driveway so narrow that there can’t be more than half an inch to spare on each side, his car radio blasting Berlioz with an oblivious majesty that must be intended to evoke the Strauss waltz to which Kubrick choreographed a space station docking in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When, during a game with toy pistols and capes on the rooftop, Pepe is ditched by one of his brothers for failing to die when it’s his turn to, Cleo enters the game by stepping away from her laundry basin, lying down, and refusing, at first, to answer Pepe’s demand that she say what she’s doing. “I can’t,” she explains. “I’m dead.” And then she and Pepe listen, and we with them, to the barking of neighborhood dogs, and the squawk of radios on neighboring rooftops (there is no music in Roma except that heard by its characters). She adds, “You know, I like being dead.” There aren’t many movies capable of conveying the pleasure, only intermittently available to anyone, and lately, it seems, harder and harder to access, of being in the world without any aim other than appreciation of it, and maybe it’s partly a viewer’s gratitude for being reminded of the pleasure that so quickly makes the movie’s characters so dear.
Cuarón did his own cinematography, and he gets his camera to do a number of things that I didn’t think a movie camera was capable of doing. He manages to point it at actors directly backlit by a setting sun, for instance, without reducing them to mere silhouettes. He films from behind two actors seated in the rear of a dim movie theater without washing out either them or the movie screen beyond that they’re watching—and then, when the curtain falls and the house lights go up, Cuarón keeps the camera rolling, and somehow richly captures the scene under the new lighting, too. Cuarón has explained that he adopted the photographer Ansel Adams’s principle of seeking to preserve as much of the visual information in an image as possible, even in its darkest and lightest portions, and that to achieve such extended dynamic ranges, he often reshot a scene without its actors at multiple exposures and then rotoscoped the takes together.
Perhaps most boldly, Cuarón arranges several crucial scenes so that the important action takes place along the axis perpendicular to the camera lens, a daunting technical challenge. By demanding an enormous depth of field, such a blocking necessitates a stark narrowing of the camera’s aperture, which makes the lighting of a scene even more of a challenge. When one figure is in front of the other, it’s tricky to maintain a visual balance between them, not to mention keep the figure in front from obstructing the one behind. Nonetheless, the most moving scene in Cuarón’s movie is blocked this way, with Cleo lying across the screen in the foreground as she watches—and we watch over her shoulder (or rather, across her shoulders)—events in the background that break her heart. The viewer’s eyes, instead of bouncing between left and right, have to travel repeatedly into the scene and then back out of it. While I watched, sobbing more or less uncontrollably, a part of me kept thinking, But he can’t be filming the scene this way. It’s impossible.
In another surprise, Cuarón drops Cleo and the grandmother of her employers’ family into the middle of the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, in which paramilitaries trained and armed by the Mexican government killed twenty-five student protesters and wounded dozens more. It has been reported that to shoot the scene Cuarón had to cast over 800 extras; it’s a chilling show of moviemaking force. As the sequence begins, a shelf of clocks shows the time to day, as if to spotlight the intersection of history and private life, and the scenes that follow reminded me, in their intensity and uncanniness, of the famous long take in Cuarón’s end-of-humanity thriller Children of Men (2006), in which the world’s last infant is carried through a long hallway, down a flight of stairs, and out a doorway as her cries silence the refugees, insurgents, and government soldiers fighting around her. The end of humanity isn’t an explicit theme of Roma, but lately I’ve found myself wondering whether any artwork of the first caliber can be created anymore that doesn’t somehow reflect a sense that there are changes underway in the world so grave that they are unlikely to be survivable in any form we have yet imagined.
Roma is an act of understanding—an investigation by Cuarón of where he came from, and of what and who made him—and it’s moving in the way that an honest and generous investigation of that kind can be. The film’s juxtaposition, however, of political violence so cruel and total as to seem almost an act of God, on the one hand, with tender and quiet appreciation of the gift that some people are able to make merely by their daily presence, on the other, made it feel to me like an act of mourning, as well—a pause to acknowledge the beauty of the world that we have lost and are continuing to lose.
Roma is playing in select theaters and available streaming on Netflix.