In a year of films that shine the spotlight on strong female characters, “Roma” is so deeply personal that it stands out from the rest. Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón taps into his own childhood to tell the story of the women who raised him, a story built from a heartfelt and sometimes painful memory. It’s an intimate confrontation of the past that explores the agony and ecstasy of simply living life. It’s also shameless Oscar bait.
Set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, the film follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper for a middle-class family of six. Cleo goes about her daily routine of cooking, scrubbing, and cleaning. While she doesn’t seem great at her job, she is beloved by the children and cares about them as if they were her own. As she tucks the children into bed, it becomes clear that the relationship between her bosses is strained. When the head of the household leaves on an extended “business trip,” Cleo becomes even more integral as a figure in the home. The story becomes a series of choices and mistakes, of triumphs and failures, told from the point of view of the housekeeper.
It’s far too easy to gloss over the serious issues when a film is so visually beautiful. Scratch away at the handsome exterior and the stockpile of pretentiousness is soon unearthed. The story is as dull as it is irritating, especially when the filmmaker decides he needs to beat you over the head with symbolism to further prove his point. Piles of dog poop. A marching band. An airplane’s reflection in a puddle of dirty water. A driveway hidden behind bars. As Ralph Wiggum on “The Simpsons” famously said about “The Departed”: “the rat symbolizes obviousness.”
Cuarón relishes in observational direction, with long takes and dialogue-less scenes that mix melancholy with humor (two that stand out include a scene of a broken family eating ice cream and a brilliant sequence of a father attempting to park his whale of a car in a small driveway). This method seems to exist by design to try your patience. Cuarón often chooses to spend too long on certain aspects of the story, which is a caveat of making a film that’s so personal. The little details matter greatly to him, but they are onscreen far past their audience expiration date. When the heart of the story is the mundane existence of life, you have to expect pockets of boredom.
Thankfully, the film’s images soar above all else as Cuarón shows off his mastery of visual storytelling. His black and white cinematography is drop-dead gorgeous, to the point I found myself audibly gasping at the beauty of it all. He captures the traps of everyday life with a creative eye towards stylish elegance. The detailed artistry is outstanding, but visionary flair coupled with poignant authenticity doesn’t necessarily make an entertaining movie.