The problem with “Roma”

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ONE EVENING in Mexico City in 1971, a middle-class family slumps in front of a television comedy show. There is a mother and a father and four small children, all cuddled together, and there is a maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who kneels down to join them. One of the children puts an arm around her shoulder: Cleo is clearly one of the family. A few seconds later the mother instructs her to fetch tea for the man of the house, and the spell is broken. Cleo may be the person who tells the children she loves them, who wakes them up in the morning and sings them to sleep at night, but after everyone else has gone to bed she still has to tidy and turn off the lights before climbing an external staircase to the cluttered room she shares with another maid. She is still a servant.

“Roma” is her story, as told by Alfonso Cuarón. Having had successive commercial and critical hits with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Children of Men” and “Gravity”, the Mexican writer-director has returned to his homeland for a film which, he says, is almost entirely autobiographical. Everything from the design of the family’s house to the name of its endlessly pooping dog is drawn from Mr Cuarón’s memories. He even includes a self-mythologising scene in which the children see a science-fiction movie which resembles “Gravity”, as if to show the viewer the source of his inspiration. But “Roma” is primarily a tribute to Liboria Rodriguez, the Mixteco housekeeper who helped raise him. It finishes with a dedication: “For Libo”.

A long, quiet opening sequence shows Cleo washing the house’s tiled driveway, mainly to get rid of the copious dog excrement. From then on, the film’s vignettes catalogue the messes which women have to clear up. When the family’s idolised patriarch (Fernando Grediaga) gets ready to leave for “a research trip to Quebec”, his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), watches his departure with waves of fierce devotion, fear and anger. It is not spelt out, but Ms Tavira’s acting is so superb that we know that Sofia knows: her husband won’t be back for a long time, if at all. Shortly afterwards, Cleo timidly tells Fermin, her martial arts-obsessed boyfriend, that she is pregnant and he doesn’t hang around, either. And so two women of different races, social classes and educations find themselves in the same house and a similar situation. “Roma” charts a year in their lives, a year of domestic and civic turmoil, as they soldier on without men to help.

Mr Cuarón turns the cinema into a time machine: the early 1970s are recreated so flawlessly that you could well believe that the film had been made in that period and left in an attic ever since. It is shot in widescreen black and white with a camera that scans each tableau slowly, from a distance, so that viewers can immerse themselves in every last authentic detail. Some scenes are painfully credible, and Mr Cuarón’s trademark long, unbroken takes show off some logistical feats which Cecil B. DeMille would have been proud of. The film has intimate close-ups, too. Acting for the first time, Ms Aparicio delivers a performance which is so natural and understated that it barely registers as a performance at all.

“Roma” is one of the most lauded films of the year. Universally praised by critics, it won the Golden Lion, the top prize at Venice, and it is tipped to appear both in the Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories at the Oscars. If there is anything wrong with it, it may be that Mr Cuarón reveres his central character so much that he ends up distancing himself from her. That is, he is so determined to view Cleo as an angel that he doesn’t always view her as a human being. The film is not just beautiful, it is carefully, self-consciously beautiful in a way that seems designed to inspire religious awe. A heart-stoppingly tense scene on a beach ends with Cleo, Sofia and the children huddled together in the sand, with the setting sun positioned precisely behind them. It is a stunning example of Mr Cuarón’s mastery of timing and staging, but the heavenly lighting and the pietà pose turn Cleo almost into a saint. 

Earlier, when the family decamps to a relative’s swanky country estate for a chaotic New Year’s Eve party, Cleo says: “This feels like my village. It sounds the same. It smells the same.” But that is almost the only time she is allowed to acknowledge that she once had an existence and a family of her own. She is so taciturn at the end of the film that one of the children asks her whether she has gone mute. But she was almost mute, anyway: Sofia gets more lines in one scene than Cleo gets in two-and-a-quarter hours. She may be fearless and tireless when it comes to helping the children, but she doesn’t do or say much for herself.

This patronising portrayal taints Mr Cuarón’s gorgeous and heartfelt film. “Roma” leaves you in no doubt that he worships and adores the self-abnegating woman who was a second mother to him. But as a writer-director, he has a lot in common with the entitled family he depicts: he cannot imagine Cleo wanting to be anything more than a faithful servant.

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