From the very first shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma — a close-up of a floor in a hallway, the sound of soapy water splashing in the background before washing over the tiles — you can sense that something sui generis is about to happen. It’s not just the lack of opening fanfare in the soundtrack as the art deco credits roll (there will be no score; the only music you’ll hear will be the occasional song drifting out of a radio and the cacophonic symphony of street life). It’s not just the black-and-white cinematography, which lends the moment a monochromatic gravitas from the get-go. It’s not even the spillover reverberations from the new hoity-toity, we’re-the-arthouse-now Netflix logo that popped up right before that image, a single “N” that warrants its own state-of-cinema screed.
No, it’s the fact that the filmmaker starts his lengthy look back at the environment that nurtured him with a gorgeous but quotidian visual and lets it sit there for close to two minutes, allowing you to soak in every wet aural whoosh, every soap bubble and spidery crack in the ground. He’s elevating an everyday sight, turning it into something poetic, because that’s what your brain does when it’s revisiting something from your past. The camera pans up eventually to show us who’s behind this miniature tide, a domestic worker named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), but the mood is set. You’re not going to watch a movie. You’re going to step inside a time machine, one that will take you back to the 1970s Mexico City of Cuarón’s youth, a place as intimate as a memory. And when it drops you back into 2018 two-and-a-half hours later, you will feel like you’ve not only witnessed but participated in what feels like his masterpiece.
Cleo works for a well-off family in a tony neighborhood known as Roma, taking care of the children of a doctor (Fernando Grediaga) and a teacher (Marina de Tavira). It’s the latter, Mrs. Sofia, that calls the shots in the household, especially when her husband takes off for a conference in Quebec and seems vague about when, or if, he’ll come back. When Cleo is not feeding the brood or cleaning up the dogshit dotting the residence’s equivalent of a garage, she’s going into town with her fellow Mesoamerican servant Adela (Nancy García García). A romance with a martial-arts enthusiast named Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a boy whose idea of foreplay is a naked kung fu demonstration, leads to pregnancy; he leaves to go to the bathroom during a movie date with Cleo and never returns. (Men have a nasty habit of disappearing in this movie.)
So she’ll deal with her increasingly swollen belly and Mrs. Sofia’s increasingly short fuse, the kids’ questions about their dad and the daily chores, viewers riding shotgun as her world moves on. And it’s that portrait of life once upon a time, which the Oscar-winning filmmaker still vividly recalls and goes to extraordinary lengths to recreate here, that’s the driving force of Roma. The sonic make-up of this vintage Mexico City — no modern movie uses sound design to better effect — is a transportive blend of crackling FM stations, cooking food, vendors hawking goods on the sidewalk, passing cars, barking dogs. Working as his own cinematographer, Cuarón glides his camera parallel to folks as they walk down avenues, indulge in shooting off guns for bourgeois pleasure near lakes, pass by lines of cops at a student demonstration, tread through muddy villages and sandy beaches. (Longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki was supposed to shoot the film but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts; the director clearly peeked at pages in his playbook and uses those signature “Chivo” tracking shots to incredible effect.) There are nods to Fellini and a first-rate Gravity in-joke. Major incidents like riots, earthquakes and even death occur; there is one sequence that is so emotionally devastating that you may find yourself closing your teary eyes to try and block it out.
This is a mural of moments and sensations, bits and pieces of love and hurt and dio-is-in-the-details fixations that Cuarón wants to share in the name of processing how he became the person he is, even if he is not the character at the center of it. “I wanted to pay tribute to the women in my life,” the director said during the movie’s intro. “I wanted come to terms with the elements that forged me,” he said after a postscreening standing ovation. And Roma is nothing if not personal to him; what makes it work is how personal it ends up feeling to you by the end of it. It’s the sort of immersive experience that reminds you of the Roger Ebert quote about movies being “empathy machines.” And with the momentum of winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and generating awards-season chatter, the film should hopefully push Netflix to take the experience of watching someone express something so private on such a necessarily big canvas seriously. It’s tempting to declare Roma the best movie of the year before the annum is even over. The only thing stopping you is that you don’t want to limit such praise to this year alone.
Barry Jenkins did not grow up in Harlem in the early Seventies, but his If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t feel like it could have come from anyone else; the writer-director had been wanting to adapt James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a New York family for years before Moonlight gave him the industry juice to make the film, and make it right. “There is a Beale Street in every neighborhood,” the author wrote, and you can sense that there’s as much of Jenkins’ own version of the famed Memphis byway as there is of Baldwin’s here. It’s a familiar tale: A young woman named Tish River (KiKi Layne) and a young man named “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James — who, between this project and a major role in Amazon’s upcoming Julia Roberts drama Homecoming, is about to blow up) are head over heels for each other. She becomes pregnant. He becomes framed for rape because a racist cop had a grudge, because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, because he’s innocent of the crime but guilty of being black. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, reliably excellent), travels to Puerto Rico to try and convince the woman coerced into accusing Fonny to recant her statement.
Like Roma, the movie features a scene of two people coupling together in a small room, a girl who’s forced to become a woman a bit too soon, a strong-but-caring matriarchal figure and a sense of regional life happening both outside of the frame and everywhere within it. Both films are visually sumptuous (what D.P. James Laxton can do with a palette of beiges, browns and dark blues, not to mention some well-placed dollops of primary colors) and both look backwards to speak about the present day. Unlike Cuarón’s movie, this one has a truly epic shit-talking set piece that drops you and props audiences up. And while Jenkins’ follow-up feels slightly underwhelming after the highs of Moonlight — as do most movies, if we’re being honest — both feel like the work of ambitious cineastes following their bliss and hitting their stride.
“One of the actors reminded me backstage of something James Baldwin said,” Jenkins noted while introducing Beale’s world premiere screening. “‘Love brought you here. If you trusted love, don’t panic now.'” Say what you will about this occasionally elliptical drama, If Beale Street Could Talk is brimming with love — for faces, for people, for the Black American experience in all of its glory and anguish, for a lost moment in time, for familial bonds, for the movies, for love itself. It’s not as triumphant as some folks might like it to be. It’s still a huge triumph.