Roma a Not-Quite Masterpiece

Roma  (2018)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Netflix, 135 minutes, R (absurd rating for full frontal male nudity)
In Spanish, Mixtec, English with subtitles

I know several friends who grew up with household servants. They insist that they considered those individuals to be “members of the family.” It’s a nice sentiment and they no doubt mean it, but it’s also the ultimate bourgeois conceit. The “help” almost always have families of their own, plus they cannot be family members for the same reason that a president cannot really have “consensual” sex with an aide; the power differential creates a gulf between superior and subordinate.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s new film is what reviewer Owen Gleiberman sagely calls a “meditation” on his boyhood. The title refers to the middle-class section of Mexico City where Cuarón lived as a child, though you could be forgiven if your immediate thought was of Fellini. Roma is gloriously filmed in black and white and its episodic structure is evocative of earlier auteurs such as Fellini or Bergman.

Roma centers on an haute bourgeois family in the early 1970s. This was a chaotic moment in Mexican history in which a series of American-backed authoritarian presidents were in power that didn't hesitate to unleash the Mexican army to put down student protests. If you recall or have read about Kent and Jackson State, you know how the combined six deaths threw American society into paroxysms of anger and remorse. That was peanuts compared to Mexico, where the army killed hundreds in 1968, and another 120 during the Corpus Christi demonstration of 1971. The latter is touched upon in Roma and “touched upon” is the right description. We see it from the POV of our middle-class family as they watch from the window of a furniture store to which they’ve thoughtlessly traveled because their pregnant maid needed a crib.

The latter act is one of the ways in which those with money spin the “member of the family” tale. Roma focuses closely on Cleodegaria Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two live-in maids caring for a middle-class family with four minor children. “Cleo” (named for an Agnes Varda film!) is from an impoverished Mesoamerican Indian family. She and coworker Adela dearly love the children, hence materfamilias Sofia (Marina de Tavira) doles out small kindnesses and considers herself their benefactor. That is, until she barks orders at them to clean up the shit in the narrow patio/garage where they keep their dog penned all day, or when she nudges them to drop everything and run an errand. Much of Cuarón’s film is silent; he needs no words to convey how hard Cleo and Adela work while Sofia and the children obliviously move through their routines as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have others pick up after them or indulge their spontaneous whims.  

The class dynamic is all the more absurd given that this bourgeois family is dysfunctional to the point of impending dissolution. The father is an egotistical doctor who is as tyrannical as the country’s leaders. Although the kids initially think he’s on his way to a conference in Quebec, he’s actually leaving them for his mistress. To add to the already lopsided gender dynamics of the 1970s, it was very hard to force men to support the children they abandoned–a dynamic that plays out several ways in the film. Sofia seeks to maintain a veneer of materialism and stability, but we suspect the handwriting is in the wall.

Roma is also a film about race. If anything, Mexican society is more racially stratified than that of the United States. Some have called it a caste society, as Mexico parses race in more than the black/white paradigm that prevails in the United States. There is, however, no doubt that Spanish-speakers of Iberian origin view themselves as superior to indigenous peoples such as Cleo and Adela. The scene of Cleo visiting her village displays poverty and deprivation that evoke South African townships under apartheid.

Class, gender, and race…. These certainly give Roma contemporary relevance, even if the setting is in the 1970s. There are other reasons to watch this film. First among them is the astounding cinematography. From the opening shots of water rushing across tiles and swirling into a drain onward, Cuarón’s assemblages of images gives credence to my long-held assertion that black and white is frequently a more creative medium than color. If you're skeptical of that remark, watch carefully the wordless sequence of five people in a car returning from a beach holiday and get back to me. Cuarón uses light and contrast in ways that rival the impact of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

Several critics have hailed Roma as the best film of 2018, and it has already won several awards. I understand the hoopla, but I must stop short of declaring it a masterpiece. The film’s problems occur when Cuarón has to do more than just point the camera. His is not really a conventional narrative but still, there are so many telegraphed scenes in this film as to suggest Chekov’s gun was loaded with a full clip. At every juncture the story could have veered, Cuarón aimed straight toward where you would anticipate. Why such a conservative script for such innovative filmmaking? This is a semi-autobiographical film and Cuarón is still in touch with the woman upon whom Cleo is based. One wonders if there is also a way in which Cuarón still doesn’t quite get the racial dynamics of his own film. By this I mean there is a way in which this film could easily be read as a depiction of the Noble Savage, an inference that seems especially palpable in the film’s closing sequence.

Cuarón is the director who also gave us Gravity, Y Tu Mama Tambien, one of the Harry Potter films, and Children of Men. The last of these remains his masterpiece, though Roma is a superior work of craft. It is an almost-masterpiece, but Cuarón didn’t get enough distance from his past to see the full extent of his childhood false assumptions.  Rob Weir

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