Roma is a critics’ darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that’s down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it’s quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn’t grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón’s latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.
Cuarón doubtless feels his indulgence is justified by the decision not to focus directly on his own fictionalised family, and instead, nominally, follow their maid/nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s an assuagement of his upper middle-class guilt and, as a paean, not at all patronising in tone, you see; he’s like a Mexican Mike Leigh. Cuarón can pat himself on the back for his insight and empathy and feel good about the second-class citizen in the house.
Except, if that’s his motivation, why does he remain so coolly distant from her trials and tribulations? Would getting too close break with the lustrously stylised veneer burnishing every frame? It would certainly get in the way of his ulterior motive: magpie-like recreations of social, political and pop-cultural events that informed his formative years.
Which isn’t to say Cuarón’s film doesn’t boast incidental pleasures and observations, but you need to be dedicated to its languorous, listless unfolding, enshrined amid a milieu of banal domesticity, to get the most from them. Clearly, most critics consider profundity lies in these smaller details, with Cleo there, Forrest Gump-like, to impassively witness them.
There’s the youngest son, given to explaining his past lives to her (“When I was old, before I was born, I as a pilot“; then later, “When I was older, I used to be a sailor. But I drowned in a storm…” – he certainly had a remarkably vibrant, wish-fulfilment prior existences). There’s the family car, favoured by the absent husband and too big for its parking garage, which is subjected to brutal mistreatment when Sofia (Marina de Tavira) drives home pissed one night. Sofia takes everyone to spend New Year with a friend’s family, and the hacienda is stuffed with taxidermy, including of the family pets. An earthquake hits a hospital, and Cuarón pauses on a scene of rubble atop of an incubator.
There’s also a touch of the Fellini-esque tableau during a forest fire; each element is so composed, I was half expecting a dwarf to romp by. There’s consequently a pervasive feeling that Roma is luxuriating in its own self-awareness of its transcendent artfulness and essential worthiness. With the bonus that this is the artist’s appreciation of honest working-class simplicity.
Despite the time afforded her, Cleo’s essentially a noble cypher; because she is passive, meek, knows her place, has no agency, is dutiful and diligent and devoted to her employer and her family, she is essentially worthy and deserving of praise. She’s accepted as a member of the family, sort of, for as long as she is anonymously compliant. During the vacation, on which she’s explicitly invited not as servant, it’s clear that she remains essentially that; there’s always rank and hierarchy. Sofia will tell her “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone” (sage words from a male writer), but this isn’t because she feels any genuine connection with her (at least, if she’s supposed to, this isn’t evident).
Necessarily for an inexpressive stoic, Cleo must undergo various ordeals, coming through them beaten but unbowed. She gets pregnant by a terrible asshole who calls her a “fucking servant” when she shows up at his training school (the scene itself a sign of the kind of indiscriminate excess a Netflix budget can get you). Taken to the store by grandma for a crib, this is revealed as an excuse for Cuarón to depict rioting student protestors with guns enter and take over (including a repeat appearance by the asshole boyfriend to further evidence what an asshole he is).
One might argue the unrest we’re seeing highlights the obliviousness of Cleo and her well-off employers, but for me, it underlies that Cuarón’s only interested in her life in as far as she joins the dots to what he really wants to portray. He’s so taken with the glorious vistas of recreated beauty and hardship and struggle of 1970s life in Mexico City, he forgets to say anything meaningful about life itself.
As such, the salutary saving of the kids from drowning that forms the emotional – and actual – climax of the movie (“We love you so much, Cleo” the grateful Sofia tells her, as Cleo confesses she didn’t want the baby she lost) lacks any real punch. It’s far too rigorously composed for that (so much so, it can be used for the film poster).
So, ducking and running from the cries of “Philistine!”, I have to label Roma as only okay. I can certainly see its worthiness in a technical sense, but as a character study, or a time capsule, or a socio-political snapshot of the period, it falls short. It skims the surface of its subject matter, superficially and seductively, but that’s all it does (it’s telling that neither trailer featured dialogue, the most recent one even going as far as being set to Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky). Oscars ahoy, then. Right?