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Melancholic memories

Alfonso Cuarón’s passion project gives Netflix an Oscar contender


Experiencing “Roma” is like watching a life through the eyes of God.

With an elegant, ethereal omniscience, Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) tells an intimate story on an ambitious scale. It’s semi-autobiographical—set in the Mexico City of Cuarón’s early-1970s childhood, in a family like his—but it’s not about a boy like him. It’s a paean to the young woman he would come to see as his other mother.

Placing his camera on the periphery of scenes rather than in their midst, Cuarón’s subject is Cleo (played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, in a humble, heart-wrenching debut), the young housekeeper of a doctor, his wife, and their four children.

Cleo is the focus of “Roma” (a word that refers to lower-caste workers but is also an idiom for a shy, reticent woman with internal, soulful beauty), but not because the camera frames her as its subject. Rather, she’s the one the camera follows, lingers with, and is drawn to as it pans, floats, and glides through its surveilling yet mesmerized remove.

In wide, deep-focus shots of pristine black-and-white digital polish, washed in a subtle beatific glow, we see Cleo’s daily life through simple, innocuous episodes that slowly give way to more defining ones. Then, set against the backdrop of political unrest, these small moments build to ones of profound impact.

Though rich in period detail, “Roma” doesn’t wax nostalgic; it’s a transport to a time and place, where the location and spaces are as vital as the people in them. Working as his own cameraman for the first time, Cuarón choreographs a stunning degree of staging, story, and emotion into deceptively long, single takes.

The film yearns for a closed, theatrical experience, despite playing exclusively on Netflix starting Dec. 14. Well, create your own theater. Turn off the lights, the cell phone, and all domestic distractions. This film wants to take you somewhere, and through something. Let it.

“Roma” is told, you could say, from a guardian angel’s POV, akin to that of Clarence from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” an angel who sees formative events both mundane and crucial for Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. But here, for us, there is no expository debrief from the voice of God.

Instead, the most critical season of Cleo’s life is observed through a neorealist’s austere, artful eye and an empathy-gushing heart, turning Cuarón into an art house Capra. It’s as if Cuarón himself is reaching back through time, with cinema as his supernatural conduit, so that he can watch over his other mother when she needs him most.

Cuarón doesn’t protect Cleo from every struggle or save her from every tragedy. That may be within his sovereignty but that’s not his sacred purpose, nor her mortal one. He’s there to see her through her pain, and whatever life may bring.

The divine power Cuarón extends is grace, love, and healing, and the hope that on the other side of every tribulation is an ascent. I hope my guardian angel is watching over me in the same way.

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