Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a textural paradox, aiming for intimacy not in spite of but through Cuaron’s typically broad, sumptuously grand filmmaking sensibilities. While Gravity was deliberately essentialized, primordial, and mythical, Roma retains this largely mythopoetic caliber but diamond-cuts it against a more democratic, diffuse, heterogeneous portrait of quotidian existence, elevating the everyday to the almost elemental. Somewhere between Federico Fellini’s experimental memory-plays and the harsher, hoarser contours of Italian Neo-realism, Roma is a collective canvas of lives intimated, a fable-istic vision closer to the whimsical squalor of De Sica’s Miracle in Milan than his more famous Bicycle Thieves, despite the latter’s obvious clout as an influence here. It’s more immediately (perhaps superficially) satisfying and less philosophically dense, or mournfully longing, or emotionally haunted, than any of these inspirations, and certainly lacks the cackling, existential carousel ride feel of the Fellini film which shares its name (and even that isn’t the director at his most carnival-esque). But it’s a spellbindingly textured film nonetheless, a semi-autobiographical work that aims less for a realist canvas than a conjuration of strong, semi-arbitrary memories, a tapestry of impressions that are both crystalline and vague.
Which means that Roma doubles as both a singular, focused drawing of Cuaron’s childhood maid realized so empathetically in Yalitzia Aparicio’s Cleo, a Mixtec servant of an upper-middle-class Mexico City family, and a kind of impasto of ephemeralia: a film where each brush-stroke tells its own story, intimating another image, character, moment, or vision beyond Cleo’s immediate existence. Each moment simultaneously stands-apart, converses with one another, and sometimes contradicts each other, allowing the film to spread out beyond the confines of the perspective which is ostensibly galvanizing the screenplay. Roma isn’t exactly revelatory, and it certainly divorces itself from the hellion, wild child impulsiveness of Y Tu Mama Tambien and the bad seed divinations of Children of Men, still Cuaron’s masterpieces. But as a largely generous motion picture, Cuaron’s film is a wonderful vision of sheer empathy, even if its empathy doesn’t always extend to real solidarity.
It certainly begins empathetically, and wonderfully. Roma drifts into this moment, almost imperceptibly layering its observations and concerns for the next 135 minutes in an elegant, casually masterful first image that recalls Todd Haynes’ Carol in silently drawing us to the unseen floors of the universe. But while Carol’s inclinations were to incalculable, unstated desire, Roma’s opening emphasizes the quotidian upkeep of ostensibly prefabricated surfaces and textures. In the opening, this practically translates to a gloriously up-close view of a diamond-pattern being caressed gently with water, before the camera tracks backward and tilts upward to depict Cleo, for the first time, in the back of what we now realize is a garage, washing the floor. The beauty of the background, the supple dance of texture on texture that goes unnoticed in the warp and weave of everyday life, is immediately apparent.
Acting as his own cinematographer (in addition to the screenwriter), Cuaron also immediately massages out a phenomenally expressive visual texture, somehow lucid and hyper-present (as in, not merely a nostalgic dream of the past) but also soft and nearly-oneiric. It’s as though the film begins by lingering on its (and Cuaron’s) own diaphanous, rounded, half-present memories of the past while tempering itself with a harder-edged eye for observational truth, a generous but cautious mode which will center the film as it gently wafts forward. It’s an incredible opening, all the more so for how casual it is, for how comfortable Cuaron feels in his chosen milieu, and for the supple wrinkles he wrings out of these themes throughout. Roma is mostly a romantic vision of the past, but it’s no delusion, and it’s clearly cognizant of the limits of such hermetic spellcasting, undermining its semi-mythic stupor with the grittier cadence of open-ended neo-realism. It’s certainly far too lacquered to resemble verite, but Roma is never, unlike, say, Shape of Water, so manicured a fable of the past that it constitutes less an engagement with reality than an escape from it.
In fact, Roma even implicitly thematizes this existential duel. Later in the film, Cleo briefly falls for Fermin, a youthful martial arts practitioner played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, whose fascination with (even fetish for) martial arts suggests the film’s evocation of the dialectic between personal fluidity and personal control, how martial arts can incline either toward a liberating connection with one’s inner-consciousness or border on the authoritarian. Roma implicitly mirrors this with Cleo’s cyclical washing, a form of cleansing which is banally practical, but graced with the beauty of her convictions, rather than mythically aspirational. Unlike her partner, she is beholden to no delusions that her actions constitute a personal cleansing or a way of evacuating society of its ills. Cleo’s final scene, a palindromic return to the film’s beginning which now wears the psychic and emotional weight of the film itself, suggests cleansing not as new beginning but tragic cyclicality, in contrast to Fermin’s dictatorial vision of bodily purification, both for his and the social body.
Cuaron, like Cleo, is similarly careful to think of Cleo as a particular soul, seldom a totem to an identity, an index for the working class as a whole, or an iconographic vision that encapsulates a social totality. Doing so would couple Cuaron to Fermin’s more authoritarian vision of mastery, and the director is empathetic enough, at times, to admit what he does and does not know, even to limit his access to Cleo and preserve her opacity. While Fermin exhibits a fascistic denial of this democratic empathy, Cuaron – like so many of the best filmmakers – fights against the impulse toward control, visualizing the push-pull between focus on his vision and a more democratic perspective.
A dialectic which the film, admittedly, registers incompletely. At times, Roma’s obviously empathetic humanism is shadowed by a curious unspecificity, a non-judgemental compassion which sometimes lapses into generalizing egalitarianism, as though the actual material differences between, say Cleo and her employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira), matter less than their imaginative sympathy for one another. Cuaron’s generosity veers toward erasing the power relations which structure them, the film partially evacuated of a fuller perspective on inequality in favor of Cuaron’s obviously affectionate sense of human compassion for his characters and theirs for each other, a liberal fantasy of individualized, personal care masquerading as genuine structural readjustment. Roma is more idealized and romantically mythologizing in its treatment of collective poverty than, say, Bicycle Thieves, and less expressive in its, well, expressiveness, than its other obvious inspiration, Fellini’s more critical film from which Cuaron’s film partially takes its name, which leaves it slightly stranded between poles.
If Cleo is an attendant, then, we might ask whether the film attends to all of her doubts and anxieties, or the ways in which she is occluded in the gaze of the others around her, the way in which she is structured into a background rather than occupying the foreground as subject? I wouldn’t call it patronizing, per-se, but Roma does occasionally lapse into treating working-class persistence as a dignified, sacrosanct portrait, Cleo a cipher for a vision of compassion for the working-class uncoupled from the political calculations of what it might actually mean to end these sorts of power relations altogether. A final, ostensibly warming proclamation on Cleo’s part clearly informs us that her employers were her real family all along, but does this rethink the problem of biological family relations – drawing us provocatively to the intimacy and affective bond which complicates the hard-and-fact constructs of class relations – or merely obscure the conditions of her employment and, perhaps, the limits of her employers’ connection to her? In other words, while Roma’s camera does ask us to wander into that which is unseen in a more normative vision, it does not always ask us to wonder what is unfathomable, or incoherent, within its own framework, the framework, of course, of a well-to-do child who grew up and mostly remembers his maid as a surrogate mother rather than a complete person or an employee of a system.
To his credit, though, Cuaron mostly checks his romanticism against the broader canvas of political unrest at the time, particularly in a number of incredible, if broad and boldface, editing-coups, for instance when a hunting party, shooting animals, is then equated with an extermination of radicals, both of which are in turn linked to a celebration with animal carcasses. Roma’s problems do, however, persist. Roma’s mode is essentially observational, somewhat unflinchingly austere in its textures, and in its too-perfect refusal of judgement. While a De Sica or a Rossellini film spontaneously wanders into and then has to consider and wrangle and wrestle with its truths, Roma sometimes calculates its, feeling too obviously stage-managed, a proscenium view of a street theater rather than genuine imaginative posture of discovery.
At times, as in the film’s startling depiction of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, Cuaron truly mediates between the personal and the political, activating the gap between the film’s implicit second-hand-quasi-perspective (that of one of the children, a mimetic for Cuaron, although no child specifically fills that role) and the wider social context that perspective can only intermittently and sketchily glimpse activating like a tidal wave. Here, Roma reaches beyond itself, and truly exposes the implications of its ability to make this reach, keeping the film on the right side of cinema’s perennial and problematic quest for self-deification by rebuking its more self-mythologizing tendencies. Plus, the film never really risks monumentalizing itself (as some critics have claimed), even if there’s always a whiff of the sacrosanct to its glorious and often radiant imagery, because its observational semi-disengagement cuts against this vision. So even if this particular film sometimes scans the geography of Mexico City without necessarily exposing the topography of power that structures it, or fails to explore Cleo’s personal shudders of doubt and desire when it’s too busy edifying its ability to “care about her”, it’s a film that must be reckoned with nonetheless.