** ½ (out of 4)
In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón takes a break from sci-fi spectacle (à la Children of Men and Gravity) and tries to return to the small-scale roots of his early career in Mexico (à la Sólo con tu pareja and Y tu mamá también). Set in 1970s Mexico City, the film constitutes a portrait of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous housekeeper who’s a stand-in for Cuarón’s own childhood nanny. Over the course of the narrative, Cuarón tracks the relationship that Cleo develops with the family she works for: a rich doctor named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira), their four children, and Sofía’s mother (Verónica García).
Since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Roma has won a lot of acclaim – and not without reason. Alongside Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) and Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), for one, Aparicio easily had one of last year’s most memorable breakout roles. Nonprofessional actors – before Roma, Aparicio was just a preschool teacher – aren’t necessarily a synonym for authenticity. But to her credit, Aparicio gives a performance that’s totally devoid of any pretense or artificiality. Rejecting the temptation to emote, she elegantly embodies her character’s quiet, persistent feelings of despair, and after watching her, you’ll find yourself hoping that she’ll continue to pursue acting in the future.
Acting aside, the other thing that stands out about Roma is Cuarón’s cinematography. Throughout the film, one of Cuarón’s goals is to highlight the discrimination that indigenous Mexicans like Cleo have always had to endure. And while it has its limitations (see below), the film’s camerawork is, if nothing else, quite attuned to Cleo’s low social status. The frequent insertion of long shots, for instance, makes Cleo seem literally insignificant. The camera’s general stillness – whenever it does move, it relies on slow pans and tilts – evokes an absence of drama, as though Cleo’s life lacked a driving purpose. And the use of deep focus locates Cleo within a larger environment, thereby suggesting the indifference with which greater society views her personal struggles.
For all its merits, however, Roma will probably leave you with the nagging feeling that it could’ve been better. Ultimately, that’s because Cuarón’s treatment of Cleo proves somewhat narrow. As we see, Cleo is someone who regularly has to put up with others’ condescension and prejudice. But even as Cuarón expertly shows us how people mistreat Cleo, he himself never sees her as anything more than “a mistreated person.” Instead of granting Cleo the dignity that Sofía, Antonio, and others strip her of, in short, he insists on representing her as a victim and victim alone.
If we’re talking specifics, I’d say that this victimizing mentality becomes most apparent in two aspects of Roma. First, in addition to relying on long and deep-focus shots, Cuarón’s cinematography generally avoids point-of-view shots and close-ups of faces. Far from allowing us to identify with Cleo, this stylistic approach keeps us at a distance. Instead of representing Cleo’s experiences and emotions as she herself experiences them, in other words, the camera retains the removed perspective of an external observer.
By itself, this externalizing cinematography doesn’t make Cleo into a “victim.” But it indirectly encourages us to view and describe her in such diminishing, detachedly clinical terms. Put differently: if you asked Cleo to talk about her life, odds are she wouldn’t describe herself as “an oppressed victim,” a “discriminated minority,” or “an over-exploited laborer.” Those, however, are precisely the kinds of labels that an outside observer to Cleo’s life would employ, particularly one unable to empathize with her on a personal level. Since it confines us to the perspective of a removed observer, Cuarón’s cinematography naturally conduces to the usage of such reductive classifications as well.
Beyond its cinematography, Roma also suffers for the significant gaps in Cleo’s development as a character. In the film, just about everything we learn about Cleo has something to do with her life as a servant in Mexico City. Save for a few allusive lines of dialogue, her life beyond Sofía’s household – the village she grew up in, her Mixtec family, her upbringing, and so forth – remains all but undiscussed. Because of this, we end up getting a very restricted view of Cleo as a person. Instead of seeing her as a full-fledged human being in her own right, you end up regarding her in the context of the system that oppresses her – namely, as just an unfortunate victim who merits our pity.
Here, it might help if I use an analogy to illustrate my point. Let’s say Steve McQueen had decided to remove all the parts of 12 Years a Slave that weren’t set on Edwin Epps’ plantation – that is to say, all the parts that didn’t directly portray slavery. In that case, we would have had a lesser understanding of who Solomon Northup was. Rather than appreciate Northup as a three-dimensional figure – namely, a unique person with a livelihood, family, and aspirations of his own – we would have seen him as little more than “that poor slave.” Cleo’s suffering is nowhere nearly as brutal as Northup’s. But by not exploring the non-housekeeper aspects of her life, Cuarón demeans Cleo in the same way that a plantation-centered 12 Years a Slave would have effaced Northup.
In the past few months, Alfonso Cuarón has offered many explanations for why he made Roma. Among other things, however, he apparently wanted to examine social injustices and inequities that he was blissfully unaware of as a kid. As he put it in an interview for Variety:
“It was probably my own guilt about social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics [that drove me to make Roma]…I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble. I didn’t have an awareness. I [had] what your parents tell you — that you have to be nice to people who are less privileged than you and all of that — but you’re in your childhood universe.”
In a way, this interest in hidden inequalities is both Roma’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Throughout Roma, Cuarón demonstrates a keen awareness of Cleo’s place in Mexico’s social hierarchy, and he certainly succeeds in exposing Mexico’s latent sexism, classism, and racism. Yet in analyzing Cleo’s social status so thoroughly, Cuarón simultaneously positions himself as an outsider to her world – and as a result, the film displays a surprisingly limited understanding of who she is and how she personally experiences the injustices Cuarón uncovers. Cuarón would probably like to think that he’s made an “empathetic” film. But ultimately, the sad irony is that Roma says more about the state of his conscience than about the characters it purports to represent.
Country: Mexico. Dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec.
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira
Running Time: 135 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language.”
Produced by: Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodríguez, Nicolás Celis
Written and Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón