The winner of this year’s Venice Film Festival Golden Lion award, “Roma” is the most recent in a string of deservedly celebrated films by Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuaron. But even though “Roma” keeps piling up critical accolades at festivals all over the world, it just doesn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as Cuaron’s earlier triumphs: “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men,” or “Gravity.”
This time out, Cuaron has made what he calls his most personal film. He’s not kidding. “Roma,” which takes its title from the section of Mexico City where most of the film occurs, is a dreamy, hazy exercise in memory, a recollection of high and low moments in Cuaron’s life when he was growing up there in the early 1970s. But it’s a film that seems to have been created for an audience of one - Alfonso Cuaron - and although made with loving care, exists as a long, slow, drawn-out vanity project in which a re-creation of the moods and some of the events in a family group from a time gone past is supposed to be of enough interest to make a general audience want to sit in on it for a couple of hours.
Alas, what we get is a tedious, lackluster portrayal of a family struggling to remain a family unit, of women being mistreated by men (emotionally, not physically), of young kids sailing through troubled times unscathed. There’s only a vague amount of narrative structure holding the film together. Cuaron keeps everything at a slow, steady pace, maintains only a hint of a story, and includes very little dialogue. It’s a watching-paint-dry movie, and the choice of colors in its palette are only black and white, and Cuaron’s decision to shoot digitally instead of on film results in a dialing down of the beautiful starkness that black and white cinematography can achieve.
The film at first seems to be about a middle-class family in Roma. Dad, a doctor, is constantly away on business, which leaves mom and her loving, right-hand housekeeper/nanny Cleo to deal with the four young kids. The focus soon shifts to what’s going on in Cleo’s life when she’s off duty. Then it goes back to mom, then Cleo again. It’s made clear that there’s some tension between mom and dad who, it’s soon revealed, is not “away on business,” but living with another, much younger, woman. A storyline comes up about Cleo and her oddball boyfriend, who lives only for the study of martial arts, and who shows no responsibility or interest when Cleo announces that she’s pregnant by him.
These circumstances lead to the men pretty much disappearing from the film, and the two principal women - on their own and together - either reaching boiling points or staring off into space. Cuaron does break up the repetitive and non-action nature of things by infusing the sound design with a lot of ambient chirping and barking, and gives us one character - Borras the dog - who’s brimming with joy, jumping up and down gleefully whenever anyone approaches the house. Cuaron includes a recreation of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, where student demonstrators went up against brutal government forces. And he spices things up with a bit of humor revolving around a motif of cars being stuck in tights spaces.
But even with all of this going on, there’s a dragging feeling that nothing of any consequence is going on. Much praise has been heaped upon Cuaron for making a film with a cast of non-actors, with most kudos going to Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo. But though Aparicio has a genuine warmth emanating from within, she also looks lost most of the time. Maybe that’s what Cuaron remembers from the nanny of his own youth, and maybe Aparicio captures it perfectly, but it’s certainly not a strong piece of acting.
By the end, we haven’t really gotten to know any of these characters. Their lives and the events in them just keep moving forward, without any looking back to what’s led up to them. You get the feeling that not much has happened to anyone here, and not much does.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron
With Marina de Tavira and Yalitza Aparicio