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'Roma': Alfonso Cuarón Crafts His Masterpiece

The 56-year-old's magical film about his Mexico City childhood is a front-runner for multiple Oscars

Roma

Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Stars: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

In the autobiographical Roma, master storyteller Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), 56, sings a cinematic elegy for the privileged and contradictory youth that launched him as an artist. Set in an upper-class Mexico City compound that precisely replicates his own 1970s childhood home, the stunning black-and-white film centers on the family maid, Cleo (a transcendent Yalitza Aparicio in her film debut). It then spirals out to include the fractured family she serves — doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga); his academic wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira in a knife-sharp performance); their kids, for whom Cleo is a mother figure — and the tumultuous times they all, rich and poor, worker and master, inhabit in Mexico's capital.

A Fellini-esque feast for the eyes, the vivid background tableaux — a man shot out of a cannon to wow a shanty-town crowd at a political rally, the beautiful sparks on the horizon heralding a forest fire on an elite estate — unfold in counterpoint to the emotionally ripe central narrative: Cleo's struggle to live a meaningful existence while toiling nonstop, spending her days off watching movies and meeting men.

Cleo is constantly in motion, waking up the kids, scrubbing dog poo from the driveway, hanging laundry on the roof. Meanwhile, the once-stable family she serves is under internal assault. Perhaps lured by the if-it-feels-good-do-it sensibility of the groovy ‘70s, Sr. Antonio has abandoned wife and children on a personal quest for satisfaction, leaving domestic turmoil in his wake. A youngest son's keen eye observes everything, filtered by his anxiety about how the moving parts fit together. We sense his intense love and loyalty, joy and anger, and imperiled sense of security.

2 kids,

Netflix

In Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón recreates the Mexico City of his 1970s youth.

Meanwhile, the adult Cuarón's camera gazes empathetically at both the indigenous woman who raised the boy and the privileged one who gave him life. While he revels in the spectacle of Mexico's teeming life beyond the gates of his family's urban villa, he delicately drafts the personal drama. Unsparing without being judgmental, Cuarón shows how his family members try to isolate themselves but can't escape social change, whether it's the coming student revolution (and the state's murderous crackdown) or a father's devastating betrayals.

Cleo and Sofia bond in part because of their misuse by men and their powerful love for the kids. While there is action aplenty, it's the intimate dramas that pack the punch. The edge-of-one's-seat moments arrive with the traumatic birth of an infant amid the student riots and the wrenching efforts of a caretaker to save children from drowning.

Cuarón has made his most personal film and his most universal, a modern masterpiece, the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It's likely to earn him Oscar nominations for best director, original screenplay, cinematography, and several more, and its only obstacle on the road to best picture is the fact that it's also the front-runner for the best foreign film Oscar. Roma will be on Netflix on Dec. 14, but if you have a chance to see it on the big screen, seize it.

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