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Director Alfonso Cuarón Reimagines His Mexican Childhood In 'Roma'


When you direct a well-received "Harry Potter" movie and then win an Oscar for a sci-fi thriller that makes even more money, Hollywood lets you write your own ticket. So after "The Prisoner Of Azkaban" and "Gravity," what did director Alfonso Cuaron do with his newfound clout? He made a movie that reimagines his Mexican childhood in black and white and in Spanish. Cuaron's new film is called "Roma." And though it's a down-to-earth drama, it has sent many critics, including NPR's Bob Mondello, into orbit.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Soapy water washes over a tiled driveway during "Roma's" opening credits, water swept by Cleo, a maid in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood that gives the film its title. Water will be a regular motif - in laundries, hailstorms, rain, a pregnant woman's water breaking, waves that crash like thunder on a beach - in a film that's part family chronicle, part memory album. It centers on the comfortable household that Cleo works in, the bustling-though-troubled home of Antonio, Sofia and their children.


FERNANDO GREDIAGA: (As Sr. Antonio, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Antonio spends a lot of time on what he claims are business trips, and Sofia's goodbyes have gotten clingy.


MARINA DE TAVIRA: (As Sra. Sofia, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: In this one, she almost can't bear to let him go, but go he does, driving through a military band that parts to let his VW Bug pass before it marches on past Sofia, who stands looking after him in the middle of the street as Cleo gets everyone ready for lunch.


MONDELLO: Cleo is like a family member, nanny to the kids...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Spanish).

YALITZA APARICIO: (As Cleo, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: ...But she's also sort of invisible to the family, an indigenous working-class woman with no apparent path to a more prosperous life. That she's the central character says a lot about the social fabric filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is recalling from the 1970s. The film toggles between intimate moments and epic sweep. One moment, he's focusing on Cleo's date with a guy whose idea of bedroom foreplay is nude martial arts moves. Another moment, he's massing huge crowds for a stunning recreation of 1971's Corpus Christi massacre, where student demonstrators were mowed down by paramilitary thugs.


MONDELLO: That's among the more harrowing of the film's set pieces, but gentler moments also stick with you - a beach wedding staged under a huge crab claw, for instance, or a rooftop view of laundry flapping in the breeze at sunset - vibrant black-and-white images Cuaron has designed to be viewed on the biggest screen possible, which makes it frustrating that Netflix is giving "Roma" just a brief window in theaters before it's available for home viewing. If you can see it in IMAX, take advantage. Not only is it breath-catchingly beautiful, but it has one of the most inventive sound designs around. And you won't get that at home. At one point, as Cleo and the family were laughing at a TV show...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, laughter).

MONDELLO: ...I turned around to shush the folks sitting behind me only to realize there weren't folks sitting behind me. "Roma" had wrapped me in its spell that completely, it would be hard to imagine a more artful arthouse attraction. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOPER ALBERT'S "FIND A WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.