Once upon a time in Mexico

Netflix Originals feature makes critics’ year-end lists

Starring Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

There’s an almost Olympian magnificence to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Filmed in elegant black-and-white, it brings a stately kind of realism to its richly detailed set of personal, social and national dramas.

It’s a kind of personal memoir based on Cuarón’s own family history, but also a sidelong slice of life devoted to fraught moments in recent Mexican history as witnessed from various vantage points within the Cuarón household—the future filmmaker, his parents and three siblings, but also the maids, nannies and other household help.

The setting is the early 1970s, and Cuarón would be about 10 or 11 years old. Paco (Carlos Peralta), the middle brother among the four kids in the movie version, seems to be the Alfonso figure here. But a key element in the film’s power and appeal comes of its treating the autobiographical elements somewhat indirectly while also foregrounding the perspectives of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s beloved live-in maid, nanny and unofficial mother figure.

The family in this case is very well-to-do, with both parents being well-educated professionals. The action of the film is often a matter of routine events in the characters’ everyday lives, but in elaborately composed sequences in which discord and disruptions, large and small, insinuate themselves into the settings and the social scenes arising within them.

A government massacre of student protesters, for example, is witnessed by family members from the upper story windows of a posh furniture store where they’re shopping. Age-old peddlers and vendors ply their trade on the same narrow, old-world streets that the wealthy parents attempt to traverse in their barge-like sedans. On an attempted fun night out, the family tries to console itself with ice cream. Off to the side, a wedding party poses for photographs. Meanwhile, a huge, theme park-style, metal crab hovers over all of it. And so on.

Cleo has an ill-starred romance with Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young worker who gets her pregnant and then leaves to join a cultish paramilitary group. The kids’ parents try, without much luck, to hide the collapse of their marriage.

Cleo and the kids rate as the story’s protagonists, but the film makes an intriguingly offbeat case for their mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), as well. Cleo and Sofia are the film’s most intricately developed characters, and by the final stages of the drama, it’s evident that they’re being presented as sharply contrasting (but also inseparable) examples of what a mother might be.

Aparicio is wonderful as Cleo, and she’s the star of this remarkable multicharacter show. But de Tavira is also very good with the mixed motives and contradictory emotions of Sofia.