I CAN TELL YOU the moment Roma revealed itself to be an indulgence, a liberal pose struck by a director whose infrequent output has helped build an unsupportable myth about his genius. It involves a trip to the movies, every director’s favorite shorthand for the magical, transporting power of cinema that saves them the trouble of having to conjure that power themselves.
Roma is the latest film by Alfonso Cuarón, whose previous credits include 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, 2006’s Children of Men, and 2013’s elephantine but empty Gravity. It’s ostensibly about the maid who raised Cuarón and his brothers, but this two-hour-and-15-minute movie that takes the housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) as its protagonist is not really about her at all. It’s about Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), Paco (Carlos Peralta), and Pepe (Marco Graf), the three young boys she watches. Secondarily it’s about Cleo, the boy’s mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their sister Sofi (Daniela Demesa), invented out of whole cloth to counterbalance the masculine core of the movie.
The film shows its hand — and its real subject — about halfway through when Cleo takes her charges to go see Marooned, John Sturges’s space procedural, at a palatial movie house in downtown Mexico City. One of the sons sees their father and his mistress at the movies and doesn’t take the sight very well. Cleo helps the boys regroup, and then we see a few seconds of Marooned. That movie takes over the entire frame. We don’t see Cleo watching it, or the boys for that matter. It’s just a few seconds of another movie, originally in color, turned black-and-white by Cuarón’s camera. This footage of Marooned is meant to explain Cuarón’s own love affair with big-budget movies, the rosebud that tells us that yes, this young boy would grow up to direct Gravity as a way to deal with his troubled childhood. Cuarón believes in his own myth.
Roma is a colossal mistake, a series of miscalculations born of unchecked hubris and hideous classism, the kind of film that drags the rest of its director’s body of work down with it. This is a film you make when your friends no longer feel comfortable asking you questions. It’s a movie made to appease the ruling class: fawning in its praise of power, it dead-ends at an image that literally deifies servitude, showing its saintly housekeeper rising toward the heavens shackled to her work, her arms full of dirty garments. Everything is secondary to lacquering the dynamic between the wealthy and the poor. In this vein, the film tells on itself early and often, beginning with an image of Cleo cleaning up the dishes left by the family on the living room floor, stopping to rest her knees on a pillow to watch TV with Sofía and the children. One of the boys (they never develop personalities; that one of them grows into a famous artist is motivation enough to care for them all) puts his arm around her. Likewise, the film wraps Cleo’s economic relation in the conceit of family ties. That Cleo is “like family” is a message routinely shoved into our hands like a nine percent tip to a bellhop. The family loves and respects her until it doesn’t — as when Sofía blames her impending divorce on Cleo’s refusal to clean up after the dog. Cuarón then dollies along an endless accumulation of canine excrement to show just how humiliating the task is — but necessary, of course. Who else would clean it up?
Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García), the family’s other live-in servant, are Mixtec, a tribe of indigenous Mexican people with a population just under one million. Cleo’s and Adela’s boyfriends are poor and live in muddy slums, which, it’s heavily implied, would be where Cleo and Adela would live were it not for their rich employers. Cleo’s boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) gets her pregnant and then abandons her to join a government-sponsored militia intended to break up protests in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 — an event in which hundreds of students were murdered during a protest of the Olympic Games and vicious anti-union activity carried out by the military. Fermín represents the cruel and easily corruptible Mixtec poor, from whom Cleo is saved by virtue of cleaning shit for the wealthy. She eavesdrops on a training session intended for Fermín and his peers where a charlatan strongman performs a herculean feat of strength for them. Alone in a crowd of hundreds, Cleo manages to mirror his movements. She’s special, you see, different from the rest of these starving wretches and as such, she apparently deserves to be saved from poverty.
Cuarón served as his own director of photography on the film and employs two techniques for the bulk of it: he dollies laterally to show the vibrancy and unpredictability of Cleo’s life as she moves through the streets or cleans the house, and he swivels the camera 360 degrees to show off the opulent homes Cleo cleans and visits. He does not use the latter in the cramped room that Cleo shares with Adela, as there is no festive clutter to be found there. He is as uncurious about her tiny room as he is about the rest of her life, which begins and ends a complete mystery. He’s much more interested in the rituals of the fatuous and wealthy. Fittingly, his compositions are defined by colossal waste, blank walls hogging half the frame, the endless spinning and too-shallow depth of field make a blur out of what was likely careful production design, and the fetishistic black and white adding little but easy Fellini comparisons. But don’t humor the film’s endless beckoning toward Fellini. That director’s Roma is a 1972 photo album of his childhood that offers a critique of unchecked masculinity as the sight of fascism’s awakening. Cuarón’s film, meanwhile, can’t help but find its version of the callous rich lovable. If he criticizes the philandering father it’s because of how the affair made him feel as a child — not his mother, and certainly not Cleo with whom the patriarch barely interacts.
The film comes to a climax when Fermín’s counter-revolutionaries attack a group of students on the day Cleo and Sofía’s mother (Verónica García) go out to buy a crib. Fermín points a gun at Cleo, causing her water to break, and she loses the child. Later, through sobs, Cleo confesses to Sofía that she didn’t want the baby anyway. Of course not: it might have pried her attention away from her employers. Cuarón evidently believes he’s presented his audience with a counter-myth, explaining how important his poor maid was in his troubled family unit. What he’s actually done is restage her life as one of happy servitude. In this way, Roma perpetuates a centuries-old, perfidious fantasy that some people need to be servants just as others need to be served.
Cuarón was never exactly a socially conscious filmmaker (in Children of Men and 1995’s A Little Princess, he’s got two white savior films to his name, and his 1998 Great Expectations adaptation is subtext-free wealth porn), but he concealed his ignorance with a sort of generalized empathy. Children of Men is, on paper, a pro-immigration story about saving the poorest children from mismanaged government care, but the plot depends on the apolitical sacrifice of a young mother who would rather die, taking her unborn child with her, than take a public political stance. Y Tu Mamá También shunts poverty and police brutality to the shoulder of a bourgeois road trip to show what class privilege frees you from having to worry about. Ultimately, Roma is a betrayal of that film’s candor, if not its politics.
Cuarón half-heartedly suggests throughout his movies that everyone deserves a fair shake without having decided what he thinks is fair. Cuarón cares about people so long as it’s proven that they are more than their circumstances suggest, as when its revealed that the hero of his first comedy Sólo con Tu Pareja (1991) doesn’t actually have AIDS and so refrains from committing suicide in the climax. And if he’d actually contracted the disease that still kills thousands of impoverished Mexicans every year? Well, it’s just a good thing he didn’t. Roma can’t even extend its fraudulent empathy to Adela, the other maid in the house, who gets no allegorical ascent to heaven for her troubles, no conciliatory hugs, no entry into anyone’s confidence, no offers to go on shopping trips, and no proof she’s unique. She’s just a poor woman cleaning a house, a part of the set, not the cast. She’s not “family,” and no starry-eyed, nostalgia-sick genius would ever make a movie about her.