"ROMA" — 3½ stars — Yalitza Aparicio, Nancy Garcia Garcia, Fernando Grediaga, Marina de Tavira; R (graphic nudity, some disturbing images and language); Broadway; running time: 135 minutes
"Roma" is a kind of forlorn love letter to director Alfonso Cuaron's childhood.
The director's moving passion project places us in 1970s-Mexico City, where a nanny named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) wrestles with an unexpected pregnancy. Cleo and her friend Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) live with the family of a successful doctor in the Roma district, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. For the most part, their relationship with Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is very friendly, but periodic exchanges are reminders that they aren't quite part of the family.
Cleo meets a young man named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) through Adela's boyfriend, but their budding relationship comes to a hasty end when she gets pregnant. Cleo fears her predicament will cost her job, but Sofia assures her the family will stick with her throughout the pregnancy.
Sofia's charitable reaction makes a little more sense when you consider her struggling marriage. Early in the film, Dr. Antonio leaves the country to attend a conference, but the longer he's gone, the more we realize Sofia has good reason to be sympathetic to the victims of delinquent fathers.
As we slowly work our way toward Cleo's delivery, "Roma" is less concerned with dramatic twists and turns of plot than it is about painting a picture of its world — albeit in literal black and white. Cleo continues to live her life and do her job, and still tries to reach out to Fermin against a backdrop of political tension that bubbles to the surface throughout the movie.
"Roma" is a natural evolution for longtime director Cuaron — even though it has so little in common with his more recent subject matter. Cuaron actually directed the third "Harry Potter" movie ("Prisoner of Azkaban") before moving on to the bleak dystopian sci-fi dirge "Children of Men" and 2013's visual space poem "Gravity."
But like those films, Cuaron's signature style is alive and well in "Roma." The film makes great use of elongated, stylish takes — but not too stylish, and nothing near as long as the 17-minute unbroken shot that opens "Gravity." At times, Cuaron's camera glides back and forth across the screen as if the viewer is in the room or on the beach with the characters, gazing as a casual bystander.
Certain scenes are immensely powerful — the single-take shot in a delivery room is profoundly moving — and others, like an early scene where Dr. Antonio tries to guide the family gas-guzzler into a too-narrow parking space — are surprisingly amusing.
At the same time, "Roma" is most definitely an arthouse film, which may be the only way to explain Cuaron's decision to include a scene where Fermin performs a lengthy martial arts routine in the nude (presumably to impress Cleo). "Roma" also has some other R-rated content — subtitled profanity, some violence and some content that is heartbreaking to watch if not particularly graphic.
But "Roma" is a vivid exploration of the world Cuaron came from and is bound to be a signature achievement for the director, who has managed to put together a captivating film that is thoughtful both in substance and style.
"Roma" is rated R for sporadic profanity and violence, as well as a nonsexual scene including graphic male nudity.