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.