Holahan: Review of Roma
We open on a close up of black and white stone tiles. Soapy water moves across the screen, the suds ebb and flow, dipping in and out of shot. As the water reaches the center of the screen, reflections appear in the growing puddle. An airplane comes into the frame, rippling in the watery reflection of the sky above, and we begin to consider what it might mean. The beginning of Roma is so abstract, so spatially disorienting, that the viewer even struggles to make out what is being depicted on screen. After a full minute of beautiful, bewildering abstraction, the plane feels comforting— at last we have found something recognizable, something that appears human.
This search for identification, recognizability, and common humanity in the unexpected is the main concern of Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma. Set in 1970’s Mexico, the film follows a young maid named Cleo working at the household of a wealthy family in Roma, México. The story is inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood, and the character Cleo is based on Cuarón’s own childhood housekeeper, Libo. The film is largely told from Cleo’s perspective; we follow her day to day tasks in the house and we watch her evolving relationships with the family she works for, the other household staff, and a man with whom she becomes involved.
Telling the story from Cleo’s perspective is a clear choice on the part of Cuarón. In doing so, he seems to be reconsidering both class and privilege in the world he was raised in. In this sense, the film is all about reimagining representation. Cleo is played by Yalitza Aparicio, an indigenous Mexican woman of Mixtec and Triqui descent. This stunning and rich performance is her first, and she has been hailed as a welcome new presence in film.
Yet, while Aparicio is a compelling presence on screen, she has very little dialogue to work with. Cuarón offers us long, wide shots, where Cleo moves across the screen— clearing plates, picking up landry, taking care of the children. Soon, we become very aware of the intensity of her labor. There are countless moments in the film where we see Cleo’s labor, but there are few where we can claim to understand her emotions. We see her suffer, and we feel bad, but we struggle to see how she understands her own suffering.
In a sequence midway though the movie, Cleo and the family go to a holiday party outside of the city. The party scene begins with a long tracking shot of the upper class partygoers, dancing to music, drinking, and celebrating. The camera pans across the opulent spread, following a line of dancers as they make their way across the room. The partygoers pass Cleo and another maid sitting on the floor, and the camera and finally comes to rest, swapping focus in favor of the two women. Soon, an older housekeeper enters, and asks Cleo to step outside with her. As Cleo leaves the room, for a brief moment, the camera stays in the same place, letting her exit, focusing on the empty space she has left behind. Though the partygoers do not feel her absence amongst their revelling, the audience does.
From this scene, it is clear that the film is not only about Cleo, but it’s also about the wealthy family that she lives with, the one that is based on Cuarón’s own. Though he seeks to understand Cleo, his main focus seems to be on using Cleo as a vehicle to critique his childhood ignorance and to better himself.
In an interview with Variety magazine, Cuarón reflected, “[Jorge Luis] Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” Cuarón’s purpose of self-reassessment is clear, and it’s a self serving purpose. The film has lofty goals of breaking down barriers, barriers between white Mexicans and indigenous, men and women, children and adults, poor and affluent. The film wants to raise up others, but it does so with the purpose of reconciling the self. Cuarón seeks to access Cleo’s humanity, to tap into the selfhood that the family denies her. But he does so from a from the standpoint of self exploration.
For a film so concerned with representing the real and the human, the choice of black and white cinematography is odd. The movie is set in the 1970’s, a time when films were typically made in color, so a historical justification doesn’t hold. Though the limited color palette does add a feeling of abstraction to the film, it is not same kind of abstraction we see in old black and white film. Here, the lack of graininess and deep contrast tells us so clearly that the camera is digital. The black and white has been added as an after effect. Though there are certainly a few scenes (the opening sequence and when the car pulls into the driveway, for instance) where the black and white pays off, the choice of this effect seems to be little more than a gimmick. The black and white adds distance between the viewer and the characters on screen, converting real emotion into forced artyness. The black and white in does nothing to tell us about Cleo or her perspective, but it succeeds in packaging her story as a consumable art object.
Roma tries hard to be real. In many ways it succeeds in doing so. There are scenes that are so emotionally raw, they are hard to watch. The viewer becomes deeply invested in the film, and deeply invested in the complex world Cuarón has created on screen. But in its ardent attempt to capture the something human, Roma hinders itself. It’s a film that asks us to see humanity in others, but it’s a film that also displays the self serving nature of this goal. Roma embodies the profound struggle between revealing common humanity and the possible inevitability of art being self serving.