Look, I think you’d have to be crazy to say that Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, Roma, is anything other than an example of a man at the very top of his creative and technical game.
Following the story of Cleo, a Mexican maid and nanny played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio (putting in the kind of performance that she should be happy is going to inevitably define her career), as she navigates life working for a wealthy family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, Roma explores both the contemporary society surrounding the central family as well as intra-familial conflicts that take place inside their sprawling abode. With a cast made up mostly of newcomers and a production process focused stringently on creating as deep a sense of realism as possible (Cuaron shot the movie in chronological order, for example, and only let actors view the scripts they were working from on the day of shooting), Roma is an odd mixture of both sharply-polished technical skill and raw looseness.
It’s clear that Roma is as much a love letter to Cuaron’s own upbringing and family as it is a chance for him to show off his impressive filmmaking talents. Based on Cuaron’s own childhood, and his relationship with the nanny who helped raise him, it’s rich with carefully-textured and loving hard work put into bringing 1970s Mexico City into sharp relief. With these long, wide-lensed shots dripping with detail and intricate sound design features, this feels like a passion project, and it’s hard not to be drawn into the dense world the movie creates. Shot in black and white, it’s heavy with nostalgia, both critical and worshipful.
And I say all this because I want to make very clear that I do believe Roma is an excellent movie, in many ways. Most ways, even. It just also happens to be an exceptionally boring one.
For me, at least – and don’t get me wrong, I completely accept that a lot of people have found this movie utterly compelling. What engages and what doesn’t is a thin line – we had this debate all over Zama, after all – but Roma’s stringent commitment to provoking a sense of realism extends to capturing the inherent monotony of real life, too.
There is skill, of course, in evoking the real world in such impressive detail and with such clear technical artistry, right down to the elements that don’t dazzle. But Roma rarely gripped me, rarely did much more, in fact, than make me want a little nap. – where films like If Beale Street Could Talk found depth in life’s monotony, Roma feels both too distant and too close-up for us to take a good look at what we’re meant to be exploring. I wanted to love it, and there are plenty of reasons I can find to do so, but I would lying if I said I actually enjoyed it. For all the exquisite skill – directorial, actorly, and otherwise – on display here, and for all I think that those aspects deserve recognition from major awards bodies – this is the Best Picture nominee that left me the coldest.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The New Yorker)