I want to preface this by saying Alfonso Cuaron is a genius. Not only did he write and direct Children of Men, my own pick for top film ever, he also wrote and directed Y Tu Mama Tambien, another personal favorite. That’s why it pains me to characterize Roma, a critically acclaimed, gorgeous piece of cinema, and his own most personal film ever, as a severe missed opportunity.
The big problem with the film, for me, is that it’s dishonest, which is a particularly sad thing to say about a film from a director whose clear-eyed honesty has been a bracing constant throughout his oeuvre. I don’t think he’s intentionally or even consciously dishonest, but he has produced a dishonest film, and for very specific reasons.
I have to admit I was worried from the start when I heard how meticulously Cuaron was seeking to recreate his own childhood, to the point of reconstructing his childhood home, and casting actors who were dopplegangers of their real life inspirations. Recreation, after all, is not reality, and the semblance of fidelity can mislead you into believing you are delivering truth, when the cinema is all about illusion.
That, I believe is what happened here. The story is obstensibly from the point of view of Cleo, a nanny and housekeeper in the employ of an upper middle-class family in 1970s Mexico. But the family is Alfonso Cuaron’s family, and therefore the story is actually from the viewpoint of a child in the family. That fact is the central lie of the film.
The bond between a privileged child and a beloved hired caregiver has been told many times before. At least in The Help, it was clear that the young white journalist was the POV character. Roma, on the other hand, masquerades as Cleo’s own story, while giving us exclusively what the child would have perceived –a saintlike figure whose entire life revolves around the employer’s children, to the virtual exclusion of other attachments, or any meaningful life outside the household.
Because this is Cuaron, there are hints of a better, more insightful movie here, often, as is typical for Cuaron, sublimated in the background. A party scene hints at a violent conflict between the wealthy, land-arrogating cousins of the central family, and the villagers they’ve cheated out of their property. An off-handed later comment makes it clear that Cleo and her charges have been born into opposite sides in this particular war –Cleo’s own mother having been displaced by people much like the central family’s relatives. For a while, I even gave Cuaron the benefit of the doubt –perhaps, as with Y Tu Mama, the real story was playing out entirely in the background, as in Donald Glover’s “This is America” video.
It was the very last scene of the movie that rid me of that hope. Cleo, immediately after suffering the tragedy of a stillborn baby, is comforted/exploited by the family’s jilted matriarch, who puts pressure on for Cleo to join them on holiday. The ostensible reason is for her to take her mind off her sorrows, but of course she ends up working her usual job, despite all the promises to the contrary. In a harrowing scene, Cleo, who cannot swim, plunges into the ocean, in an ultimately successful effort to save the lives of two of the family’s children.
Then, after they arrive home, Cleo heads off to her little servants’ quarters, where she lives with her best friend Adela the cook. Here, out of the sight and earshot of any of the family’s members, she can relax and be her real self, as Adela inquires about the holiday. At this point, I think I could have embraced Roma if Cleo had responded with anything approaching a real and legitimate reaction –from helpless tears to stoic resignation. But instead, Cleo smiles and says it was nice.
Worse, she really genuinely seems to believe it.
It’s here that we receive the final damning confirmation that the movie was directed by the sentimental child, and not the ruthlessly honest adult. This is a Cleo whose life is literally all about the kids she is hired to take care of.
It’s instructive here to consider, as contrast, another memory piece about a beloved caretaker, but a more honest one. There’s a scene in playwright Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change where a character based on the young Kushner fantasizes about his importance to his family’s maid, Caroline, and her own family, to the point that he pictures their dinnertime conversation revolving around him. This self-affirming vision, however, is presented in parallel with the reality: Once the day’s work is over, they aren’t occupied in thinking about him at all.