A Mexican “Masterpiece” That Smells Like Art-House Oscar® Bait
So much dog shit. That’s my most immediate recollection of Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s fetishistically Proustian ode to his childhood maid. The well-to-do family ensconced in the upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma has a big dog who drops cigar-shaped turds in the driveway of their walled-off compound. And no one picks them up, not the parents, not the kids, not the maids. Well, eventually the maid picks them up, but only after the place is littered with them.
At the risk of getting personal about Cuarón’s personal movie, I grew up with three big dogs in a household with two parents, three sons, and a maid. And we picked up their shit, like, as soon as we saw it. Because leaving it there is fucking gross. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. But right off the bat, the conceit made me think that the people in Roma are a family of idiots.
Not the masterpiece incessantly declared by critical groupthink, Roma is a very good movie marred by some serious problems. It’s a tribute to Cuarón’s upbringing, set over the course of a year from 1970 to 1971, and contains production details slavishly devoted to the specificities of his own life. The household is a reconstruction of Cuarón’s family home, complete with memorabilia he reportedly borrowed from his siblings. He rejected dog after dog until he found one that looked exactly like the pet he had as a kid. And he even got local street vendors from the early ’70s to reprise their role as local street vendors. He also recalled a bear playing a tambourine, but apparently his producers drew the line at that.
ROMA ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero
Running time: 135 min.
What does any of this have to do with good storytelling? Fair question. Roma is experiential, immersive, an overwhelmingly evocative memoir with so much fidelity to verisimilitude that we’re supposed to be sucked into its reality. And we are, to a point. Breathtaking cinematography captures the most anxious, harrowing, loving, even banal moments and bathes them in shimmering beatific light.
But Roma also insists on being a narrative. And that requires more than just pretty pictures. Cuarón is capable of both, but for some reason he neglects his screenwriting acumen for everything else. In addition to writing the script, the protean director is also the film’s co-producer, director of photography, and co-editor, so maybe he was a bit distracted. But ultimately the movie feels like an exercise in rich liberal guilt, a tribute to the infallible working class and a rebuke of the morally compromised wealthy.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is the unimpeachable saint of the film, the put-upon domestic worker who quietly suffers in the background while the oblivious family she serves takes her for granted. But when the father abandons his wife and kids, Cleo becomes the glue that holds them together—especially the kids, with whom she is doting and endlessly patient. Cleo has her own drama going on, after a fickle meathead lover knocks her up and then denies his paternity. But she wears a brave face and soldiers on. Because that’s what saints do. They suffer.
Cuarón is so busy canonizing Cleo that he forgets to actually make her believably human. She’s rarely selfish or unkind, bereft of any flaws other than believing too much in the goodness of others. And the children she is effectively raising are so undefined that they might as well not have names. No one has much of a personality, expect for maybe the deadbeat dad, who despite being a heel at least has ambition and drive. I honestly don’t blame him for leaving them. No one even bothers to pick up the shit!
There’s a grand tradition of childhood memory films. And Roma is certainly a strong addition to the pantheon, vividly staging everything from an intimate conversation in the back of a movie palace to a harrowing recreation of Mexico City’s Corpus Christi massacre. Cuarón’s drama is alive with teeming masses, but it lacks persuasive insights into any characters. It doesn’t have the wise, irreverent irony of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. It doesn’t have the comic surrealism of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, or the heartbreaking beauty of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes or the deeply loving but painfully clear-eyed revelations of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
What Roma does have is the insufferable preciousness of arthouse cinema, where every long, lingering camera movement is so self-aware and preening that it’s difficult to really engage with the cast. More than a few visual moments will take your breath away. Good thing, too, since the meted-out plot points in this sprawling, onanistic epic are few and far between. There’s even a hammy homage to Cuarón’s last film, Gravity. Because why not? Let’s keep up the masturbatory gestures.
Roma has been wrapped in hyperbolic hosannas since August, when the film made the cinerati swoon at the Venice Film Festival and walked away with the top prize. The immensely talented Cuarón is well-respected in the industry (the guy’s got two Oscars), and I wonder if his impressive career as an award-winning filmmaker played no small part in the acclaim. Also, one of his best friends, fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro, was president of the Venice jury. So there’s that.
Streaming leviathan Netflix bankrolled this low-budget, low-risk endeavor to burnish its reputation. Strip away Cuarón’s name and the deep-pocketed corporate push, though, and this Roma would undoubtedly have had a very different trajectory. Don’t forget, it’s a 135-minute, black-and-white, Spanish-language drama featuring non-professional actors. This is the type of movie that gets discovered at a well-respected regional European event like the Rotterdam Film Festival and tagged a brilliant first film by a promising new director.
As it is, an obliging crowd will attend Roma in select movie theaters. Millions will see it at home. Some will thrill to it. But more than a few will turn it off halfway due to turgid pacing, anemic events, and a wide-shot mise-en-scene better suited to a big screen. And I’m sure Cuarón and his circle of friends will watch it endlessly, patting each other on the back.