Whatever it does and doesn't win in the months ahead, Roma will surely be taught in future years as a textbook example of how camera choices can lend amplitude and resonance to a small, in-every-sense familiar story. That story is autobiographical, by all accounts, comprising writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's reminiscences of growing up in the early Seventies in a Mexico City household with the resources to employ its own live-in domestic staff. The camera, however, is much the same as that Cuarón brought to 2013's Gravity. True, it's been slowed a little, the better to observe earthly drama rather than out-of-this-world spectacle, but still it roves, rotates, roams, pushing deep into cluttered rooms and backstreets that present as overflowing repositories of social history to note the television shows and tunes played out at this time in this place, the fashions of the clothes the maids are obliged to pick up from the youngsters' bedroom floors. Once more, the cinema of Cuarón is a matter of space, and a demonstration that the best cinema is most often a matter of who fills and films that space best.
For some while, we gaze upon this household frontally, as if it were a cutaway of a doll's house, not unlike the boarding house in Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man or one of those vast Jacques Tati constructions. The framing can yield very funny episodes: the ongoing struggle to dock the family's wide-winged Galaxy in the house's narrow garage (and to do so while avoiding the turds parked thereabouts by the family's troublesome dog), a would-be martial artist attempting to impress maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) by demonstrating his stick-fighting skills while naked. (Unexpectedly, he completes this posturing foreplay without smashing everything in sight.) Yet Cuarón, serving as his own cinematographer, is more often to be found operating in a broadly realist mode: the film's first act is at pains to impress upon us how the upstairs and downstairs areas of this home are linked, and how the house in total connects to a shared courtyard, the garage, and the streets beyond the family's front door, on which we see the city's residents beginning to stir, mass and protest. (Later on, we will even gain a sense of the tectonic plates shifting beneath everybody's feet: the focus goes that deep.)
What's immediately striking is the uncommon precision of the approach. A opening title card flags a distinction between subtitles for dialogue in Spanish and those for dialogue in the Mixtec dialect spoken by the maids; subsequent sounds and images appear to snap together - assembling memories like Meccano - into a bigger picture besides. (For starters, we're given the info to know exactly how much the steering wheel of that Galaxy needs to be turned to get car into garage without incurring lasting structural damage.) Roma shapes up as one of those very rare films where every corner of every frame - the clutter in the youngsters' bedrooms, the fraying posters tacked to the walls of the neighbourhood cinema, both the turds on the garage floor and the stuffed dogs' heads on the walls of a family friend's holiday home - has apparently been made subject to a remarkable level of directorial oversight. We keep catching stuff out of the corner of the eye - the incidental details of childhood that stay with us, as they surely have with Cuarón: Cleo wiping down the receiver before replacing the handset on the family's phone, the kids sliding down the banisters on the way out of the house. It's the kind of filigreed worldbuilding traditionally associated with fantastical genres and filmmakers (del Toro, Peter Jackson, the Harry Potter movies to which this director contributed); Cuarón shows us it is possible to construct (or reconstruct) such a world realistically, and in doing so, leaves us wondering why more films don't make this much effort, or take this much care.
What makes Roma more than just a logistical-technical marvel is a quality that was evident in Gravity, and as far back as Cuarón's 2001 success Y Tu Mamá También, which quietly noted the gap between Mexico's rich and poor: this filmmaker's acute awareness of the space between people. This is a matter of perspective, and it's crucial to Roma's emotional effects that the film approaches this generally happy household from the POV of the overburdened maid, which makes us instantly aware of the split-level privileges at work - who has someone to look after their children and who doesn't; what a holiday means to some, and what it means to others - and ensures there are secrets and mysteries (and just general family knowledge) to which we're not immediately privy. It will take that roving camera time to alight on these, but there's always plenty to take in. For forty minutes, the film concentrates on outlining this household's standard operating procedure, its daily rhythms and rituals: packing the kids off to school and picking them up; the opening shot is of a floor being mopped. (The movie puts up on screen more of the menial and emotional labour that keeps households running than just about any film this side of Jeanne Dielman...) Only gradually do we get a feel for the faultlines threatening to break up this merry picture: the maid's unhappy lovelife, the father's lengthy absences. What starts as a portrait of a particular moment in time develops into a more specific picture yet: one of women left in the lurch. The significance of this house, the reason Cuarón dwells on it from roof to floor, is that its low-level hurly-burly is all the shelter these women have.
That we come to feel this so profoundly is due to the fact these people - Aparicio's mutely accepting Cleo, the warring young brothers, the professor of martial arts who shows up for training in superhero latex - are as vividly etched as the places the camera locates them in: they're worlds within worlds, pools of mystery that deserve exploration and explanation - and in the case of the fellow who shows up in costume at a forest fire and breaks into keening lament, who maybe can't be fully explained. (By keeping him in shot, Cuarón insists he was there, all the same.) The main narrative business, it transpires, is the revelation and foregrounding of a quiet, everyday tragedy the young Alfonso couldn't have known about, but which Cuarón the elder, drawing on much the same empathy Greta Gerwig tapped for her cine-memoir Lady Bird, now sees full well and knows how to give dramatic weight to. Roma takes in more life than the average movie, moving us from the relative plenitude of the suburbs the director was raised in to the poverty of the slums from which Cleo emerged. Yet it also gets in closer to it, finding moments to treasure forever in the reflections of a polished table or scrubbed floor, while seeing both the unpredictable chaos of the universe and those flickers of human kindness and generosity that carry us through it. It remains paramount among 2018's many absurdities that the year's most comprehensive and arguably complete work of cinema will likely end up - thanks to its imminent Netflix appearance - being watched by more people at home on TV than it will be in theatres. But there's no dwarfing Roma's many extraordinary achievements.
Roma is now showing in selected cinemas, and streams on Netflix from Friday 14.