Ines Biollay critiques the Netflix original film Roma, evaluating its reputation as a ‘pretentious’ film and questioning whether it is worthy of the slew of Academy Award nominations and successes.
Towards the start of Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 film Roma, the protagonist, a housekeeper named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), works on her wealthy employer’s rooftop until she is interrupted by the employer’s young son. The boy lies on the sun-drenched rooftop surface, beautifully centred in the frame, and is promptly joined by Cleo. He proclaims that he is playing dead, to which Cleo entertains the boy’s imagination by lying next to him and lazily replying that she too is dead and enjoys the feeling. The dialogue is spoken slowly, with a devoutly solemn tone as a far from subtle indication that perhaps some deep meaning should be taken away from this moment. However, as to just what that meaning may be feels hazy and empty, leaving little room for emotional impact. This scene, shrouded in pretension, pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the film.
The film, shot in black and white and riddled with long takes and vast silences, takes much more of a quiet, arthouse approach than Cuaron’s previous critically acclaimed films, such as 2001’s raucously thought provoking, sexually charged Y Tu Mamá También and the character driven 2013 space film, Gravity. The semi-autobiographical film has been met with positive reviews and a slew of awards show nominations. Besides Roma, only ten foreign films have ever been nominated for best picture at the Oscars: none of which have ever won. The film was also distributed by Netflix, which is a first for any best picture nominee. This year sees Roma breaking through these two barriers. However, whether or not the film is deserving of these potential accolades remains debatable.
The film takes a vignette style approach; favouring a series of quiet moments rather than a traditional plot. If handled with balance and care, this approach can work quite well in film. However, Roma utilizes this technique rather weakly. It is worth considering if the film is commenting on other works that share this quality of a subdued plot or if it was aware of its own ostentation, but, no, it takes itself far too seriously for that. Roma ends in the middle of an insignificant moment after being void of a true climax. Following the children energetically recounting their day at the beach to their grandmother, the ending depicts Cleo reverently walking up the rooftop stairs in order to do more housework. It is similar to many of the previous scenes in the film in that it presents insignificant, routine moments of everyday life. This ending — a demonstration of every day being like the next for Cleo and the children— could work beautifully, except for one large roadblock: we, as the viewers, don’t know how to feel about this monotony. It can be easy to feel unsatisfied by the ending; an emotion that could have been Cuaron’s intention for the viewer and could have worked excellently had Cleo been given more characterization and complexity. Because of her lack of complexity, the viewer can be unsure of what to feel. If Cleo had been more fully realized, perhaps at the end of the film we could feel sad for her that she is trapped in her work life. Perhaps we could feel joy for her that she feels comfortable in her position. And the list goes on and on. Yes, the technicalities of the final scene are sharp, but does this matter if they aren’t backed by other strong elements?
For all of its faults, there is no doubt that Roma does an excellent job at capturing the spirit of its Mexico City setting through unique choices and breathtaking cinematography. The film frequently remembers to follow up a moment specific to the central characters by panning out to their surroundings, whether that be a city street or a scenic landscape. This idea is perfectly presented in a scene in which Cleo browses a shop with her employer’s mother and is then interrupted by a violent protest occurring outside the shop’s window; thus transitioning from a small worldview to a large one. Inanimate objects are also given immense attention; household objects that Cleo interacts with, as well as the food she prepares, are often given close ups that remind us of the importance of the film’s setting and reflects on the many ways in which Cleo is defined by her surroundings.
There is subtlety and then there is pretension: the latter being a territory that Roma crosses into. With every extremely long take, every one-dimensional character and every piece of sappy mumbled dialogue shared between Cleo and the children, the viewer is patronized. The lack of score and soundtrack doesn’t help— the quiet and deeply underscored qualities of the film are given no room to breathe. There is no climax or breakthrough that makes all the silences worth it. No amount of impressive cinematography or aesthetically pleasing shots can take the place of a film having true heart and working with its viewers rather than talking down to them. And though this year’s Academy Awards may disagree, if a film doesn’t respect its viewers, where is the joy in cinema to be found?