Have you seen “Citizen Kane”? It’s a 1941 movie written and directed by Orson Welles, and it’s commonly cited as the best film ever made. Welles’ masterpiece pioneered and even invented a number of cinematic techniques that define the genre today, and was a salient commentary on the dangers of American individualism and isolationism. It’s the kind of movie that younger generations only know as a piece of history.
If you haven’t seen “Citizen Kane”, you’re in good company: though numerous critics lauded the movie upon release, it was a box office failure, partly because audiences in 1941 weren’t keen on criticisms of the American Dream. As a film critic, I’ve often wondered if I would one day come across the next “Citizen Kane”—how would I know if it was a movie for the history books? How would I convince people to see it?
These are questions I no longer need to ask, because I’ve seen it, and I’m telling you now: you need to experience Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”.
Cuarón is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, alive or dead. He wrote and directed the legendary Mexican film “Y Tu Mamá También”, as well as one of the best films—if not the best film—of the 2000s, “Children of Men”. He also made what’s objectively the best Harry Potter movie, so the credentials are there. After directing intimate dramas, a dystopian epic, and an audacious space allegory (“Gravity”), Cuarón is landing back on Earth—specifically in his childhood district of Roma, Mexico City.
Cuarón bases the movie’s middle-class family on his own—it’s suggested that one of the kids is Alfonso himself—but “Roma” isn’t about his upbringing. It follows the family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo: an indigenous Mixtec woman based on Alfonso’s real-life nanny, Libo. The movie opens on a long take of Cleo mopping the family’s stone driveway, the soapy water reflecting planes flying through the Mexican sky. From the beginning, Cuarón delicately indicates that “Roma” is about Cleo’s world as much as it is about Cleo.
And as a portrait of a world, “Roma” is majestic. Cuarón, acting as his own cinematographer, shoots Mexico with wide angles and deep focus, capturing huge landscapes and intricate details in equal measure. During scenes that take place outdoors, “Roma” is visually breathtaking. By utilizing expansive angles and large depth of field, Cuarón encapsulates the breadth of Mexican culture: the land of “Roma” is no diminutive peculiarity, no tidy snow globe; it is the fullness of a place and a people as remembered by one of their children. It’s dynamic, organic, and captivating.
Though smaller in scale, indoor scenes are just as enthralling. Cuarón has a penchant for slowly panning through ornately designed sets, building Cleo’s world by way of visual information. Every frame is composed immaculately; every shot is suffused with meaning. The cinematography is filled in by some of the best sound design and mixing that the medium has ever seen, wrapping us up in Mexico’s auditory ingredients. Cuarón’s aesthetic touches are noticeable enough—subtle, but not invisible—to remind us that “Roma” is his vision of Cleo’s life: a vision of a life that was close to him, but was not his.
Amid all the visual experimentation—Cuarón shot “Roma” in color, but lit and edited it into carefully curated black and white—it’s this vision of another life that proves most audacious, and that serves as a thesis statement for cinema itself. Cuarón and his family are characters in the movie, but their story unfolds in the periphery: in “Roma”, Cuarón redefines the protagonist of his own experiences, ensuring that everything revolves around Cleo. With the filmmaker in the narrative but nowhere near its center, “Roma” functions as pure empathy, a journey into the theater of a tangential life. The movie understands the potential of art as human insight in a way that is rarely this realized.
Yalitza Aparicio, the woman who portrays Cleo, is remarkable. This is her first role—she auditioned because her sister was too pregnant to go—but she wears the movie’s compassionate heart like a professional. Speaking a mix of Spanish and Mixtec, Aparicio embodies the struggles of the marginalized with an astoundingly emotive performance.
As an indigenous woman in the 1970s, marginalization is an inevitable part of Cleo’s story. She finds moments of solidarity: the mother of the family she works for says to her, “no matter what they tell you, women—we are always alone.” And yet, the mother does not notice how Cleo’s indigenous background even further alienates her. But “Roma” notices. “Roma” takes the grandiose tale of violent masculinity, racial disparity, and fractured family, and recalibrates it to Cleo’s intimate perspective. Cuarón trades his camera lens for the lens of his former nanny and demonstrates empathy in action—in order to truly see the people in your life, you must also see their wide-angled worlds.
In a way, “Roma” also functions as an origin story for Alfonso Cuarón. Its cultural context hints at the themes that inspired “Children of Men”; one plot element suggests why he decided to set “Gravity” in space. Now a master of his craft, Cuarón has delivered his triumph: “Roma”, a consummate synthesis of intimacy and grandeur, and one of the greatest films ever made. It will be released on Netflix, but if you can afford it, don’t let “Roma” share the fate of “Citizen Kane”—see it while it’s in theaters.
There’s a recurring motif of planes passing by in “Roma”, reminding us that there are billions of people whose worlds we do not yet understand. “Roma” is Cleo’s world, and it’s singularly magnificent. Don’t miss this landmark moment in cinematic history.