Although a bit of a scaling down from his previous tech-heavy outings, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is nothing if not a fully realized vision: a deeply felt black and white love letter to the director’s youth, and more specifically, to the young maid who raised him. But the film lacks much in the way of insight beyond trite platitudes regarding class separation and blunt allusions to lost innocence. Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio), the younger of two maids, works for an upper-class Mexico City family. Immediately we’re bombarded with suggestions that decay has already set in, both for this family and for the country at large. There’s dogshit all over the family’s driveway, which nobody seems bothered to pick up, and the husband takes great pains to navigate his needlessly enormous car into their comically narrow garage. The kids are ciphers defined solely by either their screeching or their obvious devotion to Cleo, and the lady of the house alternates between chastising the help and wondering whether or not her husband is a philanderer (which of course he is). It isn’t long before Cleo gets seduced by handsome local boy Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who naturally disappears when she announces she’s pregnant.
The endless visual metaphors for a crumbling bourgeoisie, and youth given over to sudden change, don’t read as anything other than broad strokes, and the clearly superlative craft actually seems cloying.
This is thinly-sketched postcard stuff at best. What Cuarón is apparently after is a sort of tapestry, one that foregrounds the quotidian struggle of this family and this woman in front of the larger socioeconomic portrait of Mexico, which he realizes primarily through the technical virtuosity he’s become widely known for. Intimate scenes play-out in long, swaying, observational pans back and forth around the rooms of the family’s home, while larger moments in the city — or into the country, where Cleo searches for the father of her baby — are captured in lengthy wide shots given exceptional depth of field by the Alexa65 digital cinematography. But all this, along with the endless visual metaphors for a crumbling bourgeoisie, and youth given over to sudden change, don’t read as anything other than broad strokes, and the clearly superlative craft actually seems cloying. And for all of its lip service to the simultaneous growing pains of Cleo’s baby and Mexico as a nation, Roma is surprisingly apolitical. The backdrop of leftist riots is mostly just an excuse to stage an admittedly harrowing sequence of suspense (not the only time the film needs to gin up some melodrama, but you can discover the rest), culminating in a rather smug elbow nudge that glibly connects our main storyline to larger events. Cuarón clearly wants to keep his drama simple, rather than epic; Roma‘s entire operating thesis is that Cleo’s story is just one in a sea of hundreds of thousands, the waves of her life lapping against the shore of time (an explicit and very purple visual analogy straight out of the film’s opening shot). But apparently, nobody asked him to consider whether such simplicity might just be boring.