David G. Hughes on Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ (2018)
THE REVIEWS OF ROMA WRITE THEMSELVES. Mexican émigré Alfonso Cuarón, who made his start with native dramas such as Sólo con Tu Pareja (1991) but went on to make it big in Hollywood franchises and CGI mega-hits, now gloriously returns to his roots. Needless to say, Roma will be described as more “personal”, thereby more valuable as a piece of cinema; it’s in his native tongue, they’ll jubilate, and even in 65mm black & white! Where there was once sinister market forces there is now “art”. Unlike his friend and fellow, Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón has done little in his press tour to make amends to the pernicious assumption that popular films are value-less, and merely reaffirms the unhelpful and regressive dynamic between ‘serious’ and ‘frivolous’ cinema.
And Roma reeks of seriousness, one could even say a somber portentousness and self-indulgence. It is certainly likely to add the Oscar to its already golden festival circuit, for it ticks all the boxes of a ‘respectable’ critics cinema – tasteful, slow, cine-literate. The story itself concerns the quotidian life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the servant and maid of a middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s who gets in a spot of bother when she becomes pregnant, but the father makes for the hills. All the while, her employer family are disintegrating via an absent father as Mexican society outside the household also undergoes some serious shifts and occasional eruptions of political violence.
Cuarón is open and forthcoming to the fact that this is chiefly an autobiographical film, a dedication to the memory of his loving housekeeper. As if employing a memory extraction spell, Cuarón has unearthed from the depths of his psyche images that, when projected, exist between dream and documentary, a live polaroid or hypnotic recollection of a distant past both personal and social. It is undoubtedly these images that remain Roma’s chief accomplishment; few can deny its pictorial magnetism. In the vein of Cuarón’s previous films that are associated primarily with their complex long-takes, this is a highly choreographed and technical film. The bustling street scenes of Mexico City, circa 1970, are something to behold in their organisational dexterity and sense of verism (this time without the cinematographic work of Emmanuel Lubezki in favour of a self-authored camera-stroke).
But this technical grandstanding removes Roma from any superficial claims of neorealism. Rather, this is a resplendent film in the Wellesian formalist tradition, owing its aesthetic conception to Touch of Evil (1958), particularly the much studied flamboyant opening long take. And while neorealism was an authentically humanistic approach to post-war working-class suffering, Cuarón’s perspective of ‘invisible labour’ displays all the evidence of the same infantile regression that makes it such a visually alluring film. That is to say, this is hagiography of the most naive and religious kind, that only the perspective of an adoring child can produce. Cleo is indeed a Saint; a simplistic, caring woman without a thought in her head and very few flaws. Her defining characteristic is her love expressed through an everlasting cherubic smile, a sort of innocent, asexual, puritanical view unable to unshackle itself from Catholic repression.
In harsher words, Cleo is uninteresting, a one-dimensional icon (εἰκών) that doesn’t feel as real as the bustling mise-en-scène. Countless times, Cleo and family are situated in frames in which the workers of Mexico City – market vendors, road sweepers, trash men – all go about their daily lives. All the while, the thought that they are all merely ornamental pieces in a pictorial chessboard for the filmmakers gratification is hard to eject. The opening shot of the film, for example, makes tranquil beauty of Cleo’s labouring, as she washes and mops the floor (water is a recurring theme). Here we discover the fundamental problem: an aestheticisation of labour under a veil of empathy. Roma, despite a pretence of earnestness, is more interested in the glorious and redemptive act of work rather than the life of the worker, for Cleo and her cohort are barely granted a close-up, never mind a sense of agency. It’s a personal film, yes, but hardly an empathetic one.
That Cuarón has made a film from his subjective historical memory is of no particular objection, but he extends his hand too far when he attempts to amalgamate his tender recollections with all that is social, cultural and political of the era – from memory to megalomania. Or, to appropriate the words of art historian and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris, “regression in the service of the ego”. In all its tedious longueurs, there is something altogether unclear about whose perspective Roma is from – His? Hers? Ours? Gods?! – and what Cuarón is claiming to do beyond the most ambitious display of employer gratitude. Worse, if there is an overall agenda, it seems to amount to little more than the suggestion that the help are people too. Besides, as Cleo’s cinematic preferences make clear, if the help are going to the movies, it wouldn’t be to see a film like Roma. They would rightly choose the stars of Gravity every time.
Streaming on Netflix August 30, 2018
David G. Hughes is is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He has written for Quillette, Little White Lies, Film International, Live for Films, and more.