Alfonso Cuarón's look at the Mexico City of his youth is one of the year's most vibrant films

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Alive in a way that few movies are, "Roma" is a sumptuous piece of filmmaking, a gorgeous look at life on a grand scale told through the prism of one family. 

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, already an acknowledged master of cinema thanks to "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Children of Men" and "Gravity," revisits the Mexico City of his early '70s youth in this stunning family drama. His lens — Cuarón shot the film himself — swivels back and forth from a fixed position, capturing the vitality of his hometown like a casual observer; shots are framed against weddings, parades and violent citizen uprisings, as well as the airplanes that are always flying overhead.

That's just the background. In the foreground is the story of a family, and the maid who cooks, cleans and cares for the four children while the parents' marriage crumbles. Yalitza Aparicio, who has never acted before, plays Cleo, the maid, in a naturalistic performance that can only come from a first-timer.    

Cleo becomes pregnant after an affair with a man whom she learns wants nothing to do with her or their child. His blow-off of her is a gut punch, her delivery scene — rendered in a single take — is almost unbearably tense.   

That's the story, but "Roma" isn't so much about the story as it is the telling. Cuarón's black-and-white photography gives the film a rare intimacy that makes it feel like a personal diary entry, and he fills the film with nods to his past; watch for the shots of "Marooned," the 1969 film that helped inspire "Gravity."

While it is a love letter to his youth, mostly it acts as a tribute to the raw human power of Cleo, and unheralded women everywhere who do the hard work of keeping families together.  

There's no musical score in the film, but there's no need for one: "Roma" pulsates with natural sounds, and its swells of emotion give it all the score it needs. Forget music, Cuarón has created an opera. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama   

'Roma'

GRADE: A

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language

Running time: 135 minutes

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