Roma (2018) – dir. Alfonso Cuarón

For whatever reasons, folks are really averse to sentimentality. We’re all up for a good love story, but seldom seem to be in the mood for a story made with a lot of love for the story being told, or those inside of that narrative. Spielberg is widely critiqued for being overly sentimental, that he’s being manipulative. And this is a patently naive approach. Because all stories, to some degree, are manipulation, the way any argument is a manipulation. Authors are using their work to get an audience to see things their way, molding and selecting elements in a way that confirm a particular philosophy or moral.

If I had to venture some kind of explanation, I think people struggle to open up their hearts in the first place. So, asking a person to give themselves to someone that does not literally exist with a similar degree can be a somewhat significant ask. Taking a character for granted, insofar as they serve a story that entertains, comforts, or edifies an audience, is much easier than acknowledging the humanity that often makes those stories worthwhile in the first place.

Still, for all the melodrama, all the destruction, and all the dog poop littered throughout Roma, one could hardly fathom a more sentimental tribute than Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical love letter. Named after the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up Roma is a stunning portrait to the caretaker who helped raise him. The story of one woman, blown to the proportions of heaven itself, Roma is a breathtaking cinematic experience. A quiet sort of epic–often, a little too quiet–Roma is often moving, thoughtful, and genuinely thrilling in unexpected moments, Cuarón does his best work since Children of Men, and reminds us to show a little love for the figures in our lives who shaped us without us realizing.

Roma begins with a very striking image, one that ascends without ever having to move the camera. We watch as water is poured over tile, with the vantage of a skylight reflecting off of the puddle. We see an open sky, with an airplane crossing the frame. This is a common trope in the photography of Roma, this sense of being caught in the middle of two very different places. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is someone in such a predicament. She’s a housekeeper for a doctor and his family. Cleo is somewhat one of the family,  but exists firmly on the periphery. So long as the house isn’t derelict, the family pays little notice to her or her fellow housekeepers.

In the meantime, Cleo hangs out with her friends, and is smitten by her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is profoundly masculine. He studies martial arts, and when he shows off some of his moves to Cleo, he does so completely naked–in a prolonged display of full frontal nudity. When–in a foreboding screening of La Grande Vadrouille–Cleo tells Fermin that she’s pregnant with his baby. Fermin leaves Cleo at the theater, and when Cleo confronts Fermin, he threatens to kill her. Cleo’s pregnancy is further complicated, as this coincides with the disintegration of her employers’ marriage. When the good doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) takes his leave as part of his marital separation, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is left to pick up the pieces. Cleo is complicit as well, when–in a not-so-subtle metaphor and a sort of allusion to Gravity–she takes the kids to see Marooned, and their dad is out with another, younger woman. She bottles up her feelings, hiding them from everyone, save her husband and her mother Teresa (Verónica Garcia).

Sofia is supportive of Cleo’s pregnancy, but largely continues her pattern of obfuscating her family’s circumstances, particularly her young children. And this mentality of ignoring or hiding from larger problems is endemic of the socioeconomic upper class. In a scene taking place on New Year’s, the family heads out to the country, where there are whispers of land disputes in the region. A fire breaks out following a fireworks accident. The whole stretch is reminiscent of The Rules of the Game–Jean Renoir’s seminal critique of an indifferent bourgeoisie on the eve of World War II. And this narrative restraint is made up for with two other monumental set pieces–particularly a street riot cum medical emergency that ends the film’s second act.

And if Roma is about anything, Cuarón is attempting to give a voice to the voiceless, both in a broad sense–such as the student activists consistently protesting throughout the film–but more specifically to the women in his life.. The film itself is quite muted, and, by extension, so is Cleo. Yalitza Aparicio’s performance is incredibly reactive, and curiously authentic. Cuarón would apparently throw Aparicio into the deep end on set–even literally, in some cases–not giving her sides until the day, or telling her what she would be doing right before shooting. That worry and sense of confusion is laid bare on Aparicio’s face, as she tries her best to navigate the delicate situations she’s foisted into.

The only issue, and what really takes Roma from being an out-and-out masterpiece to a near-great film, is that Cleo is so passive, so relegated to the sidelines by virtue of the story, that she never earns proper emotional catharsis. This is clearly a purposeful choice. Cuarón routinely buries Cleo in the foreground, often losing her large groups of people, or shooting so wide that she’s indistinguishable from anyone else. While Roma is deft in displaying affection for Cleo, and being indignant that she is so easily lost, her inner life is so repressed. Cuarón either shows too much reverence for Cleo to presume her thoughts, or would rather deify instead of humanize her. And perhaps that unknowability is somewhat intentional. Because can anyone ever really know what those who take care of go through? But that doesn’t work when we’re following and meant to identify with Cleo.

That connective tissue is a shame, because despite how gentle Roma is, the film is so immersive. Cuarón pulls off a feat of honest to goodness grace. While the story being told isn’t always satisfying, but is always compelling. And because Roma is so well-made, the film’s shortcomings become that much more maddening. Because this is as majestic as something so personal can be. Maybe Roma is just too beholden to virtuosity to fully land. And by all accounts, that isn’t the worst problem to have. One could not overstate the power of Roma sheerly from Cuarón’s eye, his lingering, often floating and bobbing camera. Subtly acted–with the black and white bringing out an expressive quality in . the cast that might otherwise be lost in color–and measured in rhythm, Roma is as lived-in as can be–and what better way for something remotely autobiographical to be? If nothing else, I want to continue to be in Cuarón’s world. I want to continue to get to know his family and Cleo. Even after stumbling, Roma manages to arrest. No wonder Cuarón is still drawn there.

Rating – 8.8/10


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