Alfonso Cuarón is one of the best filmmakers working today, but he is not a prolific one. His last film, a full five years ago, was the technical marvel Gravity, and it won him the Oscar for Best Director; that came a full seven years after Children of Men, a no-brainer short-list candidate for the best films made during my lifetime. So it’s no surprise that his latest, Roma, arrives awash with critical buzz, especially as it joins films by Paul Greengrass and the Coen brothers as part of Netflix’s latest obvious push for awards season recognition.
The other, worrisome thing about Roma, though, is that fraught word that haunts descriptions of its plot: “semi-autobiographical.” Roma, you see, is primarily about Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the Mixtec servant of a light-skinned middle-class family in 1970’s Mexico City. Roma follows that family – a family not unlike Cuarón’s, in the same neighborhood Cuarón grew up in, with a second-mother figure in Cleo not unlike Liboria Rodríguez, the film’s dedicatee (“Para Libo”). The film follows Cleo and the family in paradoxically intertwining parallel, as Cleo finds her dalliance with martial Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) leading to a pregnancy and the family’s patriarch Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) flakes, leaving mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) to simultaneously cover for Antonio and keep the family together, against the backdrop of a Mexico where class, race, and gender combine in a complex stew and political turmoil is just below the repressed surface.
To get the easy stuff out of the way, Roma is, on every technical level, marvelous in all the ways we expect and love from a Cuarón film. Shot in sumptuous digital black-and-white, the film is composed primarily of long shots that pan back and forth at their own almost-languid face, oftentimes not quite keeping up with its characters as they bustle about. The film’s composition strikingly contrasts the claustrophobic with the wide open, often pushing its characters and central action into the corner and letting its screen be dominated by rich, cacophonous tableaux. Roma strikes a tone that balances the understatedly comic with the ominous, a fragile feat that usually only the Coens can pull off with this much confidence.
But Roma never quite emerges from Cuarón’s mind. The warning signs are all there: not only did Cuarón direct it, but he also has sole writing credit, the only film in his oeuvre for which that is true, and he’s served as cinematographer, again the only of his films for which that is true and only the second film he’s made to not have Emmanuel Lubezki, easily the greatest working cinematographer, in that role. He also reportedly produced the first edit of the film, a cut over four hours in length, before he’d even let his co-editor read the script or have a crack at winnowing away the bloat.
Self-indulgence, in and of itself, is a poor critique of art, but it can be a compelling explanation for why a work doesn’t achieve what it could. It’s also the best explanation for why Roma, despite its myriad strengths, ends up feeling a bit flat, when in so many ways it is so similar to Cuarón’s previous amazing films, most obviously Y Tu Mama Tambien, but also Children of Men, which also uses mixed mood, long takes, compelling tableaux, and a stark contrast between narrative and setting to evoke both character and mood.
The missing piece, tellingly and tragically, is Cleo, who through no fault of Aparicio’s performance, never really becomes a character. Despite many moments where she gets to be and do human things, including a fabulously photographed denouement, she spends most of the film as a convenient vector for the broader dramas Cuarón wants to show, and as a vessel for his tremendous and complex emotions, but without truly coming into her own as a person.
Even more tellingly and tragically, this is not true for Sofia, who is given much more opportunity to inhabit the full range of experience and emotions. A single, quick moment where she storms out of a room, slaps and berates her child, and almost instantly collapses to the floor, sobbing and embracing and apologizing to him, is exactly the kind of moment of beautiful character, physical performance, and economically glorious storytelling that Cuarón is capable of producing, but he crucially never lets his film’s true heroine have for herself. The result is a film trapped between what it had the potential to be, what Cuarón thought he wanted to make, and the limitations of making something so close to himself that he couldn’t quite escape. Roma is masterpiece-adjacent: still a better film than what gets churned out for middlebrow awards season, but also much more painful for not being what it could have been.