(In theaters and on Netflix.) With a filmography that includes titles like Children of Men and Gravity (to say nothing of his earlier works), Alfonso Cuarón has established himself as an inarguably masterful filmmaker; a craftsman of cinematic experiences that typically garner acclaim (and a few trophies) during the all-important awards season. Roma effortlessly follows suit: Shot in stunning black-and-white with intense attention to even the most banal of details, Cuarón’s deeply personal, semi-autobiographical drama tracks a year in the life of a housemaid in Mexico. Inspired by (and dedicated to) Cuarón’s actual housemaid from his childhood, Roma is nothing if not well-made. Unfortunately, that’s about all it is.
Cuarón employs his usual array of filmmaking tricks and tools – wide shots, lingering on seemingly unimportant objects, and more wide shots — but those feel incongruous to the personal nature of Roma. The film follows Cleo, a young woman employed by a wealthy family in Mexico. The husband is a successful doctor who travels far too often (your eyebrow raise is justified), while the wife remains at home with the children, whom Cleo — along with another house helper — watches over as part of her daily work. Cleo’s deeper connection with the children is evident, as is her poor choice in men: Her lover is essentially the Hispanic version of Danny McBride in The Foot Fist Way. And so it’s not surprising that he ghosts Cleo after she reveals her pregnancy.
To say anything more of that plot would spoil this particular arc — the most meaningful component of Roma. And yet, much of the film feels bizarrely impersonal. The viewer understands that this is a story about Cleo’s life and experiences, but Cuarón’s distant approach — he shoots the character like a still-life portrait – results in a cold and underwhelming experience. Perhaps if Cuarón used a different approach (one that emphasizes Cleo’s point-of-view), or if he wrote Cleo as more than a passive witness to the world around her, Roma might have resonated more. As it stands, it’s a beautiful film that’s so preoccupied with creating a realistic, immersive world of sights and sounds that it forgets to make its central character an actual person.
That said, newcomer Yalitza Aparicio has a face and demeanor that’s inherently naturalistic, and well-suited to Roma’s atmosphere and story. If anything, she makes the most out of what little she’s given. This is a woman who is not an active participant in her own life; things just happen to her. Bad things. A lot of bad things. She’s the embodiment of Murphy’s Law. Despite its basis in reality (these things apparently did happen to Cuarón’s maid), that ceaseless barrage of unfortunate occurrences begins to feel somewhat cruel at a certain point, and the film struggles to justify them – particularly in the third act.
It’s impossible to discuss Roma in this way without inserting myself into the review. As a white American woman, my perspective is inherently limited — through no fault of my own. It’s been shaped by my own set of life experiences, and although I am a woman, I am still white, and thus not immune to such limitations in empathic ability. Roma will connect with certain viewers whose experiences echo those depicted in the film. The more I listen to those experiences, the more I appreciate what Cuarón has made and accomplished, even if I struggled to connect with it. Those viewers see something remarkable in this simple story of a young Mexican woman existing and living in this time and place; a woman who actually looks like them, and not some glamorized movie star version; a woman who is average. To see those experiences mirrored back on a giant screen in a film that is being played in theaters all over the country (and in Mexico) is inarguably meaningful. And I recognize that is not my experience to have.