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Linda Cook

Linda Cook

Alfonso Cuarón’s new Spanish-language film “Roma” is a work of art.

Small wonder it earned Best Motion Picture — Foreign Language, and Cuarón himself earned Best Director at the Golden Globes. As awards season progresses, you are bound to hear more about this sometimes-beautiful, often-tragic black-and-white movie set in the early 1970s, a time of social unrest in Mexico City.

The setting is in the Colonia Roma district where Cuaron really did grow up.

Cleo, the family housekeeper/nanny, is played by Yalitza Aparicio, a teacher who is not a professional actress. That is, until now: With Cuarón’s outstanding direction, hers is one of the finest performances of the year.

She helps with the household of Sofia (Marina De Tavira), who has four children and a husband who is “away in Quebec.” Or at least that’s what Sofia tells the children. Her husband really has taken off to Acapulco with his girlfriend.

Cleo has a boyfriend of sorts — at least, they are lovers who sometimes go to the movies together. The narcissistic young man (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is proud of his martial-arts abilities and, in a heartbreaking scene, abandons a bewildered Cleo when she tells him that she is pregnant.

Cuarón shows a world where uncertainty abounds, whether it’s the possibility of stepping in something the family dog left behind, a student demonstration that turns violent or an earthquake.

He is a master filmmaker. I have been a fan of his work since I saw “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Others may recognize his name as the screenwriter of “Children of Men” and “Gravity.”

In many ways, this is a work of literature, not unlike “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which a central woman character is a stabilizing force for those around her.

Throughout, Cuarón lets us hear the city — the hum of traffic, the chatter of people in the streets — that gives an almost-documentary feeling to the film. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography adds to the true-to-life feel of a bygone era.

Always, the undercurrent of how women — regardless of their stations — must adapt to being abandoned by men runs through the story. The ensemble delivers memorable performances of characters you’ll remember for a long time.

I must caution sensitive viewers that there is a scene in this film that you probably would not see in an American film. It is graphic, sad, realistic and shocking, and is one of the reasons the movie is rated “R.” Despite the presence of a young family in the ensemble, this is unsuitable for children.

This is one of the finest films of the year … or any year.

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.