Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.
A longtime admirer of the work of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), I at first found much to love in his latest, a loosely autobiographical romp through his childhood years entitled Roma. Though hardly prolific, Cuarón invests himself fully in projects; witness his previous film, the 2013 Oscar-winning 3D space epic Gravity, years in the making and subsequently stunning in many of its visceral thrills (though not in its dialogue). Here, he not only writes and directs, but also shoots (and co-edits), making of Roma a deeply personal movie on many levels. Unfortunately, while the black-and-white visuals are sumptuous and the mise-en-scène impressive, the story at the center disappoints. What starts out full of promise becomes, by the end, an empty exercise in nostalgia.
Even worse, Cuarón’s proximity to the subject makes him blind to the way he inadvertently glorifies the sacrifices of domestic servitude, a tone-deaf paean to class-based hierarchies that I found difficult to stomach. The time is 1971, and young housekeeper/maid Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, delivering a moving lead performance, worthy of every award this season) takes care of an upper-middle-class family, with four kids, in Mexico City, occasionally pursuing dreams of her own in her limited free time. She is Mixtec, while they are European, just one of the many details that define her as an outsider. Though beloved by the children (and ostensibly by the parents), Cleo is very much a servant, berated for not cleaning up dog poop and not speaking Spanish, her sole friend a fellow Mixtec maid.
Soon, when an ill-fated romance turns sour, she finds herself pregnant, as well. The narrative stage is therefore set for a profound examination of race, gender and economics. What we get, instead, is a scattershot set of scenes that merely skim the surface of what could be, Cuarón strangely doing nothing more than presenting each sequence with enormous directorial craft. Unlike Federico Fellini, the Italian master whose œuvre he references in aesthetic, episodic style and even title (though this last one obliquely, as “Roma” literally refers to a neighborhood in Mexico City), Cuarón never quite succeeds in stitching together a cohesive tapestry that transcends the power of the individual anecdotes. The images may be truly breathtaking to behold, but cinema requires more than mere beauty. There is no there there, merely a vacant (if splendid) filmic vessel.
Still, if one has to spend over two hours in a darkened movie theater, or at home watching a movie on Netflix, where Roma will play starting December 14, one could do worse than choose this offering, ultimately insubstantial though it may be. Indeed, home may be the perfect venue for the film, masking its absence of meaning through the usual interruptions we impose on ourselves in our own spaces. And it provides a lovely background of shifting tableaux that, if one has hung a widescreen television on a wall as a living-room centerpiece, would give the work of the world’s best photographers a run for their artistic money. That is no small achievement, so let us celebrate Cuarón’s cinematography and ask that, next time, he hire a different writer.