Precious, stiff ‘Roma’ too larded with film school clichés

A thin goodies bag stuffed with art film clichés, Roma is a film for Hollywood producers who wonder what goes on in the lives of their housekeepers and their children’s nannies. It’s a movie animated by the insistence that, as Singin’ in the Rain‘s Jean Hagen remarked, it must bring a little joy into our humdrum lives — “it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.” For Alfonso Cuarón, writing and directing a picture like Roma must have felt like an exorcism; he has basked in reviews that have praised it precisely because it’s his “most personal” to date, whatever that means, as if critics had drinks with him in 1970s Mexico City, and as if Roma is “personal” while Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mamá También were not. Yet they and Cuarón may be right: after his recent run a “personal” project like Roma is impossible to imagine without resorting to rummaging through decades of film detritus.

Set in a 1970s Mexico City pockmarked by societal unrest, Roma concentrates on the relation between maid Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) and her employers Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor. The first scene is of a close-up of bathroom tiles getting a thorough washing — a symbol of Cleo’s responsibilities for a family whose heads are barely on speaking terms and whose children need tending. Eventually Antonio leaves, a secret that Sofia keeps from the children. Indeed, one of the film’s leitmotifs is of Antonio and the adults clumsily parking the car in the garage. Cuarón, who shot the film himself, stresses the family’s piss elegance: the crumbling mansion, the dog shit in the garage, the abandoned food on kitchen tables. Then Cleo’s boyfriend Fermín gets her pregnant; at the movies he gets up to hit the bathroom and never returns. When Sofia learns the news, her noblesse oblige and a sense of gratitude compel her to pay for her medical treatment .

Described in these terms, Roma could’ve been filmed as a stark, clean example of contemporary Italian neorealism, yet Cuarón has the instincts of a circus horse showing off its kicks and posture. Cuarón can’t leave his slender tale alone; he keeps tarting it up until the nostalgia porn is ready for exhibition. He can’t stop panning the camera to the left. To the right. Back to the left. Pointless examples of WHOA ARTY SHOT fill the screen, from the closeups of hands on a car wheel to a later splash of color that alludes to a similarly garish sentimentality in Schindler’s List. An early scene in which Cuarón captures a kid with a toy gun playing dead while the maids putter in the background, using deep focus in a manner flattering to Jean Renoir, is a rare moment of earned eloquence; it underscores the subtle ties binding the help and the employers. So too is a sequence late in the film in which demonstrators surge around office buildings; as Children of Men revealed, Cuarón has a talent for choreographing the ebb and flow of crowds — how crowds follow no logic but the dictates of pure movement.

By treating Cleo as a wronged creature worthy of patience and pity, however, Cuarón takes the side of the patricians. This is not an indictment. But his script — the first for which he takes sole credit — confuses complications for deepening. Making Cleo a pregnant, abandoned woman to whom things happen is a movie convention, and Aparicio isn’t a compelling enough screen presence to project anything but a numb pathos. Pity isn’t empathy. Worse, Cuarón uses one of Cleo’s child charges for suspense late in the picture. When critics once rebuked Hitchcock for similar choices, I didn’t get it; now I see the cheapness of the gesture. No spoiler here, but suffice it to say that it calls to mind a hambone scene in Woody Allen’s 1978 Strindberg/Bergman pastiche Interiors. Grant Cuarón this: his camera captures the rawness of a landscape of mud and sand.

The momentum behind this etiolated picture continues, inexorably. Inasmuch as Roma deserves a pat for showing Latin American working people onscreen, it also dishonors the subject by using distancing devices steeped in the film school culture that is often as stagnant as a creative writing seminar. To valorize workers is a form of condescension. To reward a movie for its looks is a kind of cultural flattery. To hope Cuarón returns to movies of a bigger scale is my fondest hope.


11 thoughts on “Precious, stiff ‘Roma’ too larded with film school clichés

  1. Jukebox

    “Pity isn’t empathy” I stopped reading at that because I’ve yet to see it. Let me tell you I could smell this. The Iñarrritu-ization of Cuarón. What a letdown Alfred. I want to say it’s a PITY. But the correct expression here I presume is “IT’S A GUILTY.” Anyway, I can’t judge without seeing. I almost have the feeling that baby isn’t born at all in a bloody mise-en-scene involving ·la masacre de Corpus Christi” That’s what Iñárritu would have resolved such things. I’m scared of seeing it now.
    See? BlaKKKlansman was good!

  2. Jukebox

    You were absolutely right. I was unnmoved by the whole thing but bothered about the unnecesary re-animation phoetus scene and dissaponted by the last shot. Nothing did happen to Cleo, it seemed. At least, she deserved free driving lessons at the end… to get away too.
    But such were the fates of housemaids back then. Cuarón didn’t lie. He’s just shrinked his vision. And put a LOT of details where it didn’t matter. Almodóvar could have provided free lessons on sorority warmth and compassion. But Cuarón would have to lie a little more and that would have been a different film. And make fiction GREAT again. Neo-realism is not for him. That, I’m sure.
    That’s why I liked Gravity so much better. At least, the debris thrown at Sandra Bullock relentlessly had explanations: proof that women have miraculous reserves of steelness and grateful audiences gasping for air. And a flair for the make-believe.

    One women here has a maid and children. The other has substitutes for love. That’s stingy, even for him.

    The pans left and right and circular to show the house’s many rooms at the beginning were so obvious. Cleo’s so obviously in every corner of the frame of her patrons. My imaginary gift for Alfonso’s Christmas is Kiarostami’s “Close-Up”. And three or four screenwriters for his next movie, like in Children of Men. He can’t do anything alone. That’s false. He still needs some kind of movie- nanny (Lubezscki?) That’s true.

    1. humanizingthevacuum Post author

      I read a compelling argument that those pans limn Cleo’s reality. I can handle the B&W or those pans, not both.

      1. Jukebox

        I agree. Both together are preciosity. My problems, futher along in the film, are the total negation of the close-ups. So Cleo’s reality is upstaged for Cuarón’s memoir. It’s like he’s rememebering everything this BIG and DETAILED. Not Cleo. So he abandons Cleo’s POV creating a distance between us and what she sees. Is what Cuarón sees what seem to matter. And if we presume Cuarón is the little blonde kid (I do) he had a 360 degree vison since that age. What a man! It comes across as untrue to me. Memories don’t play out that way. So it kept me at arm’s lenght. It’s a paradox a film that tries to encompass so much has so little intimacy for her protagonist, don’t you think? Even when she’s suppose to have sex, he cuts abruptly. Why in Hell THAT didn’t matter? I don’t understand.
        But it sure mattered the dead baby in his continuous pan! No abrupt cut or ellipsis for that. Why? My shrink would say the pulsion of death won over the pulsion of life. A strange decision for a a film he calls an “act of love” to her nanny and the women that raised him (Marina de Tavira didn’t receive a single scene of intimacy, either)
        Like one critic here said: “He couldn’t leave that slender story alone”. Linklater play these cards more honestly. Pans when needed, close-ups when needed. Is he trying to re-invent the language of film? I’m not buying.

  3. philovereem

    “To valorize workers is a form of condescension.” That was one of the proposition I was referring to in my Facebook comment. It’s telling that Cleo early on imagines it might be better to be dead, then later vividly expresses her longing for her village, then, in the end, what does she get? More piss elegance and shit detail. The family LOVES her, so that must be the best outcome for her!

    I am not an acute enough film fan to spot film cliches as accurately as you. I loved the black and white, almost gelatinous, footage, and the Bunuelian echoes (though Bunuel would NEVER have ended a film THAT way). Also, I’d only previously seen one Cuaron film (his first). But I definitely get your concern about his being rewarded for a film that LOOKS good.

    1. humanizingthevacuum Post author

      “The family LOVES her, so that must be the best outcome for her!” is exactly what I recoiled from. Thanks for reading.


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