Let’s get nostalgic.
Roma is the new film by one the greatest living directors (Alfonso Cuaron), and was one of my most-looked-forward-to films of the year. The film has also been met with almost universal positive praise, but I didn’t care for it. I am writing this review more for folks who didn’t like it and feel like everyone else did.
We follow Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for a large family in Mexico City in the 1970s. The family is full of characters, and the streets full of life. We follow Cleo for one year and get a look into the domestic life of the period, and see memories of a childhood painted in great detail.
The film looks great, and Cuaron’s eye is always impeccable. Numerous shots are breathtaking here, but the story lacks some meat. Further, the decision to make the film black and white neutralizes a lot of the impact of the scenes—at least it did for me. The film reminds me of a Sandra Cisneros novel, but in the novels we get sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tons of color. Here, everything is washed out in the black and white film, and the city seems less alive because of it.
Cleo is frustratingly passive. We never get into her head, and whatever is driving her decisions is something we are not given access to. The family is likewise distant, and what is causing the turmoil in the family is only given to the audience in little snippets. The characters interact in a world without explanation, and the characters themselves are kind of flat. All in all, I found the film quite boring.
Even events that should drive narrative interest aren’t given the proper context. I knew about some of the major student riots thanks to a history class I took by chance, but the way they are presented in the film doesn’t say much about them. We know the students are protesting, but we don’t know what they are protesting about. We know there are political disputes, but we don’t know the sides of the dispute.
I suppose it is an accomplishment to have the film presented through the eyes of a child (meaning the in depth details might not be known), but it frustrated me. I can see how someone could be enchanted by this film, but it certainly did not have this effect on me.
The lack of details actually led to some humorous mistakes on my part. I was not aware there were only four children in the house until near the end of the film. I honestly can’t tell any of them apart (even still), and I think this indicates a weakness rather than a creative way of storytelling.
Cleo is also frustratingly mistreated. We get to see a mistreated dog throughout the film (truly, the dog is the most sympathetic character as it seems to be dying for any attention or affection). Cleo is part of the family, but not really. Numerous scenes of the family sitting with Cleo on the floor, or standing to the side indicate the sort of power dynamic present here. I honestly think they included the dog just to indicate the Cleo is treated better than an animal, but not an equal. Even towards the end of the film where it seems Cleo is more appreciated, she is still beneath the family. These moments could have led to something interesting, but our heroine seems incapable of introspection, and instead passively accepts her position without protest.
The story is so thin there is actually very little to critique. We are just along for the ride and get random interesting (but not contextualized) events witnessed by a character who seems incapable of self-reflection working for a family that seems incapable of growth.
The film is beautifully shot, but also incredibly boring. I think this film might work if it can intoxicate the viewers with the great shots—if you rely on the story you will be disappointed. I am in the extreme minority here, so give it a shot if a year in the life of Mexico City in the 1970s sounds interesting.