David Wheeler’s review published on Letterboxd:
My fourth Cuarón. Not quite the masterpiece that so many are calling it, but this is still a spectacular piece of work. With an unassuming, benevolently voyeuristic camera does writer-director Cuarón (here working as his own cinematographer) capture his quiet story: lateral tracking shots; slow, almost completely circular pans; predominately perpendicular shots; Cuarón's practically trademarked long takes; and very rarely the camera will upanchor itself and follow its subjects. It's the type of cinematography that is not only technically proficient but visually awe-inspiring, especially as Cuarón has decided for crisp black-and-white illustration. So far, the best-looking film of the year, and the best sounding, with a three-dimensional soundscape that is incredibly immersive. Might as well catalog the nighttime shot of the slow arrival of a forest fire as one of the best in recent memory.
We follow Cleo (played wonderfully by Yalitza Aparicio, here in her first role), a maid for a fairly affluent family living in the suburbs of Mexico City in the 70s. She is a quiet young woman, not one for parties or extended company, but she adores the children she is nanny to—particularly the youngest, Pepe, a boy who dreams of sailors and pilots. Work proceeds as usual until the family's lives and Cleo's are arrested by the patriarch's infidelity and Cleo's sudden pregnancy.
Two plotlines interweave and complement each other—narratively and thematically—as the film progresses. One prepares to welcome life, while another prepares their goodbyes to one. The adult men in the film are cowards, ostensibly more interested in play and playthings than with family: "We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone."
On the outskirts of the main thread—until a climactic sequence reenacting the Corpus Christi massacre (fueled by dissension against then-President Álvarez) collides with our players—are hints of political unrest that effectively map the environment, the familial turmoil essentially functioning as a microcosm to the provincial turmoil. There is also a repeated motif involving overhead jetliners slowly streaking the sky. A side effect of the heavy air traffic above Mexico City, but perhaps Cuarón is likewise making a point on the perpetual nature of living, of all things outside of the central family, as life moves on despite the distinctive hardships that afflict every last one of us.
There are two separate scenes of sheer brilliance: the Corpus Christi massacre as Cuarón's camera, inside a department store, observes from a high window the absolute chaos occurring on the streets below (one of the best shots he's ever done, not to mention the massive coordination involved), and in the climactic sequence in the roaring tides as the camera moves unbothered by the attacking waves as those caught in the rolls are unequivocally bothered—a sort of cruel concordance with both the serene and horrifying (a protracted sequence that builds tension only to let all the emotions spill in its closing).
Think I'm mostly perturbed (albeit slimly) by a midsection, six-minute scene involving a martial arts training class... simply impresses a feeling of by-product fluff for a long time until a frightful conversation concludes it (though I recognize Cleo's striking a certain pose with ease as a character joist). Plus, there is an air of microscopic incompleteness to it... it is a missing something that would have likely (as it almost rightly does) lifted it up on high as a truly great piece of work. Still, that seems more pish-posh in retrospect, for this is still a masterful work, and my favorite of the year so far.
Surprised to find a self-reflexive Gravity reference in the film.