Movie Review: Roma

Roma Film Poster

Roma * 2018 * Rated R * 2 Hours 15 Minutes

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Roma, written, directed and filmed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a project that is clearly close to the filmmaker’s heart. The film is a barely fictionalized version of a year in the life of Cuarón’s childhood, a tumultuous year which changed the family’s dynamics and drew them closer together. The ostensible focus of the film is Cleo Gutiérrez, an indigenous Mixtec woman who serves as the family’s maid and nanny, with a secondary focus on Sofia, the lady of the house and a stand-in for Cuarón’s mother. Cleo is based on Cuarón’s beloved real life nanny, Libo Rodriguez, now 74, to whom the film is dedicated.

The family Cleo works for, headed by Dr Antonio, lives in the comfortable Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma, with their four young children (Pepe, Sofi, Paco and Toño), Sofia’s mother, Teresa, another maid, named Adela, a man who acts as their driver and their enthusiastic dog, Borras. In the beginning of the film, the children and the maids are laughing and happy. Cleo’s biggest problem in life appears to be keeping up with the messes Borras makes in the alley where he runs free and Antonio parks his massive Ford Galaxy, which barely fits into the space allotted.

At the start, the problems all belong to Sofia and Antonio, whose marriage is in trouble. Before long, Antonio leaves, supposedly on a business trip to Quebec. But it’s soon revealed that he’s left the family for good. Sofia must learn to cope with being a single mother, and find a way to support the family, since Antonio doesn’t send them any money.

Cleo also soon develops a grown up problem of her own, an unwanted pregnancy. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sofia promises to support Cleo through her pregnancy, and arranges for her medical care at the local hospital, since Cleo has been abandoned by the baby’s father.  She and Sofia share the common bond of both having been abandoned by their men and left alone with their children, all during the same year.

Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo Gutiérrez, Marina de Tavira as Sofía, Fernando Grediaga as Dr Antonio, Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín, Cleo’s boyfriend, Marco Graf as Pepe, Daniela Demesa as Sofi, Diego Cortina Autrey as Toño, Carlos Peralta as Paco Nancy García as Adela, the 2nd maid, and Verónica García as Teresa, Sofia’s mother.

The events of Roma keep moving, just like life, following the characters in a stream of consciousness type flow, which I had no trouble sitting through. There were enough interesting happenings, and enough suspenseful set ups, to hold my interest. There are also many intriguing characters who pass through the family’s lives during the film.

But the film often presents the viewer with an intriguing situation or a character, then doesn’t take it anywhere. In a film with a long running time (2 hours and 15 minutes), it can get annoying when the camera spends its time on lingering shots which are beautiful, but don’t advance the story, while important information is ignored.

The film, which takes place between 1970-71, putters along, in slice of life fashion, showing what Cuarón determined are the most important family memories from that year. He spoke frequently with Libo while writing the script, and she was on hand for some of the filming. Despite that, this is still his story and his memories. Cleo spends much of the film’s running time onscreen, but only has a few lines. Despite the film’s portrayal of major, traumatic events in her life, we only see a few moments of emotion from her, and we rarely hear her verbalize her emotions or opinions.

Except for telling her employer’s children she loves them. That happens a lot.

But we don’t know how she feels about her job or her boyfriend. We don’t know what her dreams in life are or what she would want for herself if she could choose. We don’t know her preferences in anything. She placidly smiles, does what she’s told, loves the children, and is grateful for the opportunity the family has given her. Nothing more.

She is what a boy in young Alphonso’s situation would like to believe about his nanny.

Cuarón has made the mistake of many male creators. In wanting to do something for women, he did something for himself. He told his story, through the male gaze, with an odd mishmash of elements which are added to also make it his mother’s and nanny’s stories. But he’s not really comfortable with those stories:

And the interesting thing for me in this process was that to your loved ones, you take it for granted. You don’t really give them an individuality. Your mom is your mom. She’s that person who nurtures you. The last thing you want to hear is about the sexual life of your mom. Everybody laughs nervously. When working, I had extensive conversations with the real-life Cleo. And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation. And a woman that comes from a more disadvantaged social class, that also comes from an indigenous heritage in a society that is ridden by class, but very perversely, like in the whole world, race and class are intimate. There’s the other perverse relationship between class and race. So this is the woman who raised me, it’s my—it’s weird to say surrogate mother because it’s a strange word. Put it this way, that’s the case of so many domestic workers or nannies. They have more presence in your life than sometimes the biological mom. –Vanity Fair 9/18

He started making this film when he was 55 years old, in 2016. Libo started working for his family when he was 9 months old. In the 54 years he’d known her prior to starting prior to beginning the film, and decades in which he’d thought of her as his second mother, he’d never thought of her as a separate person in her own right, never thought about how her race and class had affected her life. How her gender interacted with her race and class seems to be completely off his radar. He’d never given this consideration to his own mother either, who had to support the entire family in the 1970s, which was not an era which made it easy for a woman to have a career.

These two women each faced difficult situations in an era when the solutions weren’t easy, but we see the family’s struggles through a child’s mindset. It’s as if the young Cuarón was eavesdropping on scenes he didn’t fully understand, and has transferred them here, verbatim. There is no depth or background given to the various pieces of the film. Student riots break out and become violent, but the viewer has to stop and figure out what’s happening for themselves. There are land wars going on between the wealthy landowners and the indigenous people, but again, this is mentioned a few times and dropped. Unless the viewer already knows the history and environment from which Cuarón hails, the context is lost.

I believe that Cuarón made the film he wanted to made, and, as such, it’s a success. But it’s not enough. Yes, it features women onscreen most of the time. Yes, it shows the story of an indigenous Mixtec nanny. But, like Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 film Wind River, about violent crimes against Native American women in the Western US, it’s made by a man who is patting himself on the back for doing great things to help women, while still hogging the spotlight and the microphone.

The film is beautifully staged and shot, a reliable aspect of Cuarón’s films.  The house used for filming was a real house in the Roma neighborhood which was remodelled to recreate Cuarón’s childhood home. Attention is paid to the tiniest details, from props to camera angles. Many of the furnishings come directly from Cuarón’s home.

It’s technically perfect. But it adds to the emotional remove the viewer feels from the characters. The camera stays at a distance from the actors, frequently in the next room of the open plan family home. The camera angles often keep us from seeing the character’s faces clearly. Symbolism is everywhere. The children are mainly boisterous, self-propelled props, except for the Cuarón stand-in, who is, of course, the one Cleo and Adela love best.

The black and white, was, I suppose, meant to keep the story a memory, or to make it more arty. But that, too, makes it about Cuarón’s vision, instead of about Cleo and Sofia. Cuarón thought he was telling an intimate story about his two mothers, but he didn’t have the emotional guts to do it full justice and to allow the memories to breathe, in messy, living color. He retained intense control of the production process, such as writing the script alone, only giving pages of it to cast and crew on the day they were to film a scene, and serving as his own Director of Photography.

In the end, thinking about his mommies as sexual beings and women who have faced oppression, in a way that he’ll never feel, squicked him out, and so he put artistic walls up to keep him from fully confronting those realities. Sadly it keeps the viewer from fully confronting those realities, too, which would have been a large part of their stories in 1970-71. I guarantee you his mother’s divorce and reentry into the workforce and, his nanny’s pregnancy while serving as an indigenous unwed domestic worker, did not feel like a Disney fairy tale to them at the time.

The children’s mother, Sofia, is at least allowed to verbalize her feelings and express her emotions. She is allowed to take care of herself, and to get angry or wallow in self-pity for a while. As the lady of the house, she doesn’t have to hold back. Cleo and Libo, on the other hand, would always be aware of their precarious position in society. Selflessness is a virtue it would behoove them to cultivate.

As such, Cleo is turned into an indigenous version of Sara Crewe from “A Little Princess”, Cuarón’s 1995 film about a young woman who comes from a harsh background but is saved and brought to live with a wealthy, loving foster family, along with her best friend. This is ironic, because Cuarón specifically said he wanted to avoid making that mistake.

“Roma” — named for the Mexico City neighborhood of his youth — would be Cuarón’s ultimate personal testament. But the 56-year-old filmmaker was not interested in a nostalgia piece, or something akin to his 1995 Hollywood debut “A Little Princess,” which was told from the point of view of a child. — 2018

But he did just that, by keeping the narration in the equivalent of the third person omniscient, which is the substitute for both his childhood self, the narrative voice used throughout most of the film, and his adult writer self, who made himself learn about the sides of his mother and Libo which he deemed unsavory or embarrassing.  Cuarón glossed over anything that would give true depth to the story, since those are also the parts that would require exploration of themes he couldn’t bear to associate with his mothers.

This means that Roma is another beautifully made, sanitized fairy tale, in which a privileged man tells us about a girl who’s too good to be true, who gets an ending that’s a fantasy. It’s a story which has been told many times.

Libo and Cleo’s real story, from their point of view, told with all of it’s emotional, cultural and historical implications left intact, could have been worth 5 stars and my vote for best film of the year.

But that’s not the film that Alfonso Cuarón made.

Sources: Alfonso Cuarón on the Painful and Poetic Backstory Behind ‘Roma’ Alfonso Cuaron on the Woman Who Inspired Roma, Making Harry Potter, and What He Learned from His Worst Movie


Image courtesy of Netflix.