The heavenly Roma brings Alfonso Cuarón back to earth without a bump after Gravity. That film, which won him the best director Oscar in 2014, is jokingly alluded to in the new picture – there’s an excerpt from the low-tech 1969 space adventure Marooned, and a shot of a boy using an upturned bucket as a space helmet – but there are deeper connections between these superficially dissimilar movies. The action in both cases is influenced by a woman’s unseen child. In Gravity, the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock was grieving for her dead daughter. And the course of events in Roma is altered when Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an uncomplaining Mixtec nanny whose face is as round and sweet and soft as a Mexican doughnut, finds she has a buñuelo in the oven.
Cleo tends to a Mexican couple, their four children and a romping Alsatian, which decorates the narrow courtyard with its magnificent turds. Whatever else is happening – the marital problems of her employers Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), dinner-table tales of roadside executions by the military – Cleo carries quietly on. The setting is Mexico City in the early 1970s (the height of the government’s Dirty War against students and dissidents), though you wouldn’t know it from the title, which refers to the middle-class district where the family lives, and suggests Italy and a specific Italian film: Fellini’s Roma, that unruly 1972 carnival of memories.
Cuarón fills every corner of the frame, just as Fellini did, so that the eye has to roam the screen as though scouring a fresco. But for all the bustle and brio, it’s a visually lucid movie. The monochrome cinematography that makes explicit the film’s neo-realist influences also gives the images a popping clarity. Hailstones look like diamonds, and a giant model crab reaches out from the roof of a restaurant as though trying to nip Cleo’s head with its claw.
The screen is alive with incident and detail. One vignette takes place in an overstuffed bourgeois living room where a man in a monster suit weaves his way around the obese Christmas tree, boisterous children and stuffed deer; another in a burning forest where young onlookers use tiny buckets to douse fledgling fires.
There’s a wide shot of the slums in which you could almost miss the figure being fired out of a cannon in the background: it’s just another piece of business in the frame, and it’s precisely that mix of the nonchalant and the spectacular that makes it funny. Acting as his own cinematographer, which directors rarely do, Cuarón restricts the camera either to static shots or serene robotic pans; they’re like the visual equivalent of Cleo’s unflappable demeanour.
Cuarón’s preference has always been for intricately choreographed camera moves – he staged two of modern cinema’s most complicated single-take shots in Children of Men. That tendency is intact here, with a use of long takes and deep focus that suggests the grandeur of Max Ophüls, but in Roma he also introduces the illusion of the casual, so that dramatic moments seem not so much staged for the camera as liable to tumble by accident into its path. Rather than placing us on the streets throughout the Corpus Christi Massacre, in which more than a hundred people were killed by government-supported paramilitaries, Cuarón observes it mostly from the windows of the furniture store where Cleo is shopping for a crib. It’s her second prenatal cataclysm, after the earthquake that interrupts her visit to see the babies in their hospital incubators, and further proof that the unplanned pregnancy is shaking her world.
Roma is a highly autobiographical work, with as much as 90 per cent of the scenes drawn from incidents remembered by Cuarón and his family, and the nanny on whom Cleo is closely based. But its joy lies in how fully the material has been reimagined as art, shaped around a series of motifs (dogs, planes, eyes, the ocean), and not simply embodying Wordsworth’s idea of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” but preserving both states, the crazed and the calm, in one film.
“Roma” is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 14 December
dir: Alfonso Cuarón
This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died