Review: Cuaron crafts a neorealist masterpiece in ‘Roma’

This image released by Netflix shows a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. (AP)

The phrase “world creation” gets thrown around casually and frequently in cinema, but few modern directors are better at fashioning a totally transportive experience than director Alfonso Cuaron. He has taken us to space, to the edge of desire, to a bleak future and back to the wistful anxiety of childhood. And each of his very distinct fantasies have a way of sticking around in your consciousness, lingering so effectively that they often find a privileged resting place alongside your own memories.

Such is sure to be the case with “Roma ,” a hypnotic, neorealist masterpiece about a middle class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s that’s inspired by the filmmaker’s own youth. But this is a different kind of autobiography. Instead of looking inward and telling a story from his own perspective, Cuaron has stepped outside of himself and chosen pay tribute to the inner lives of two people who children only ever see in the context of themselves — his mother and nanny.

And it is the nanny and housekeeper, Cleo, who gets the star treatment in “Roma.” Portrayed with astounding assuredness and depth by the novice actor Yalitza Aparicio, Cleo may appear quiet and reserved but she is acutely observant to everything that’s happening around her, no matter how small. She treats seriously the loneliness of the youngest son of the four doctor’s children she cares for. She seems to know that when her boss, Sofia (an exquisite Marina de Tavira) snaps at her to clean up the dog poop in the garage, that it isn’t about her. She is used to absorbing the pain of others, which makes her own trials through the course of the film even more devastating to experience.

As with many families with a live-in housekeeper, Cleo may be getting paid for her service, but she is as much of mother figure to the children of the household as their birth mother, who has, at least lately, been distracted trying to keep the attention of her scoundrel husband. The men of “Roma” are little more than jerks, disappointments and nuisances who leave the women, and the audience, enraged.

This may all seem very vague, but “Roma” is a journey that doesn’t really lend itself to simple plot points. It’s simply a slice of this family’s life, at the moment when they find themselves having to adjust to life without a father, and realizing that perhaps Sofia and Cleo are quite enough and always have been, as they go from the city, to the country for the holidays and back to the reality of home, where political turmoil has reached a violent boiling point.

Cuaron is content to take his time with “Roma,” allowing the camera to linger on his subjects and the frustrating banalities of ordinary, everyday life that sneak up on you with poetic significance as the film goes on, like a garage, the ever present dog poop that Cleo is always picking up, and a car that’s too big to fit. It’s the kind of patience that makes so many moments indelible and affecting — from something as small as Cleo sitting in a movie theater to a rowdy holiday party brought to a halt by a fire. It is filmmaking on the highest level.

Netflix has given “Roma” a theatrical run before it hits its streaming service on Dec. 14, and there has been a lot of debate around how it “should” be seen. It is certainly a film that is enhanced by the big screen, and the implied focus that sort of viewing experience demands, but great films are great films no matter the medium. Just put the phone away, and allow yourself to submit to the serene, transcendent experience that is “Roma.”

“Roma,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language.” Running time: 135 minutes. Four stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.