Roma is Alfonso Cuarn's deeply autobiographical portrait of an upper-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and despite being gorgeously shot and genuinely earnest in its drama, it is too much in Cuarn's head. Reading just a handful of interviews with the writer/director will immediately alert you to the absolute authenticity of the film's mise-en-scene, down to the placement of furniture (all from Cuarn's family members) and the details of the street on which the film's central family lives (the title derives from the Colonia Roma neighborhood where Cuarn grew up). Every detail is in place, which is obviously deeply meaningful for Cuarn, but for the rest of us it is largely immaterial as we don't have the connection of memory and experience that he has. That is fine and is to be expected, but what Cuarn has failed to do is translate his own experiences into a cinematic one that can be fully shared. Roma's visual beauty and formal precision are admirable, and there are moments that work emotionally, but overall it has a fundamental hollowness because Cuarn relies too much on his own emotional memories, which means that he fails to dramatize the elements necessary to bring us close to them. Instead, he simply stages them.
The story centers around a wealthy family and their domestic worker, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who functions as a live-in nanny, maid, and cook. The father, Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), is a physician and medical researcher, and the mother, Sra. Sofa (Marina de Tavira), stays at home despite having a degree in biochemistry. There are four children in the house-three boys and a girl who are all in middle childhood and who are portratyed with so little vivid detail that I can't recall as single one of their names-as well as a grandmother, Teresa (Vernica Garca). Cleo manages all the domestic work along with Adela (Nancy Garca Garca), with whom she lives in a second-floor room behind the main house, which is off a private alley gated from the street.
Cuarn tells the story largely from the perspective of Cleo, who he based on a domestic worker with whom he grew up named Libo Rodrguez (the film is dedicated to her). That perspective is inherently limited, though, because we know next to nothing about Cleo as a person. We know she comes from a small village to which she does not want to return, and we get the sense that she is mostly passive and maybe a little simple-minded, if only because she never reveals anything that would resemble depth of thought or self-awareness. The children all seem to love her, but it's hard to know why because we never see her doing anything with them or for them or having a conversation with them. She is never depicted as being a supplemental parental figure or place of refuge for the kids. They just love her because, we might deduce, Cuarn loved Libo, so we are to simply take their affection at face value.
The one aspect of the film's drama that works is a plot thread involving Cleo becoming pregnant by Fermn (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a friend of Adela's boyfriend. We see Cleo and Fermn on a date and then after they have had sex; he spends the whole time talking about himself, particularly about how he escaped a bad adolescence of drugs and gangs by getting into martial arts, while Cleo doesn't say a word. Cleo's pregnancy brings out the best of those around her (rather than firing her, Sra. Sofa gets her top-notch medical care) and the worst (Fermn, when he learns that she is pregnant while they're at the movies, gets up to go to the bathroom and simply never comes back). The pregnancy leads to a particularly harrowing scene in which Cleo and Teresa are shopping for a crib and get caught up in the Corpus Christie Massacre, in which members of the Mexican paramilitary group Los Halcones killed dozens of student protestors. Cuarn uses this grisly incident as a striking moment of merging Cleo's interpersonal plight with the violent political history of Mexico in the early 1970s, although for those viewers not versed in said history, this explosion of very public violence will be quite surprising-almost surreal. Those who know it is coming will feel a sense of impending dread as Cuarn plants all kinds of foreshadowing throughout the film, making us all too aware of what is to come.
Roma marks Cuarn's return to his native Mexico, where he hasn't staged a film since his indie hit Y Tu Mam Tambin (2001) 17 years ago, and his first film since winning the Best Director Oscar for Gravity (2013). Working for the first time as his own cinematographer Cuarn gives the film an intensely detailed visual sensibility. Shot in high-contrast black and white, it is visually astounding. And, while it has frequently been compared to Italian neorealism narratively and thematically, its visual acumen is much closer to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), both of which relied on a razor-sharp deep focus to give balanced attention to the multiple planes of action unfolding before the camera lens to create a real sense of lived space. Cuarn varies the film's rhythms by sometimes using carefully timed pans that remind us of the mechanical roving of a security camera (something Francis Ford Coppola employed in his masterful 1974 film The Conversation), sometimes employing lengthy tracking shots, and at other times locking the camera down for extended long takes, the most emotionally excruciating example of which is Cleo's trip to the hospital after her water breaks during the massacre. Yet, even as affecting as that scene is, in hindsight we realize it is affecting largely because of the inherent nature of the event, not because of the character to whom it happens. Cleo is a cipher, a stand-in for Cuarn's memory of an angelic nanny that lacks anything resembling depth of character. We are asked to accept her as fundamentally good simply because-well, it's not entirely clear why, unless we assume it is because she is quiet and docile and subservient. One certainly hopes that is not the case.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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