Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 17, 2020)
2019’s Parasite achieved a seemingly impossible task: it won the Best Picture Oscar despite the fact it came from South Korea and focused on Korean dialogue. To that point, a non-English language movie had never won Best Picture.
One year prior, though, 2018’s Roma nearly accomplished that feat – maybe. I say “nearly” because the movie received tons of praise and acted as a Best Picture frontrunner, ajnd I add “maybe” because we’ll never know how the vote went.
Still, because Alfonso Cuarón took home the Oscar as Best Director, one assumes the movie got plenty of Best Picture votes. However, the Academy opted for the wholly American – and very “safe” - Green Book as the recipient of its biggest prize.
We’ll never know how Roma did in the BP voting, just as we’ll never know if the “Netflix Factor” impacted its chances. Though it ran on a small number of movie screens, Netflix financed Roma primarily as a property meant for their streaming service.
This caused controversy, as the Academy needed to confront the notion of what makes a movie a movie. They’re still grappling with that idea, and it’ll just get stickier as time passes and the various streaming services throw more and more money at big names, but Roma seems like it probably suffered the most from the arguments.
Or maybe the Academy just preferred a gentle movie about how a white dude learned to be less racist.
Set in Mexico City circa the early 1970s, Roma focused on Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper who works as one of two live-in maids for an affluent family. Matters become strained when patriarch Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) abandons the clan.
This leaves matriarch Sofía (Marina de Tavira) on her own to care for four kids, so she relies heavily on the support of Cleo. Along with these duties, Cleo copes with her own unexpected pregnancy.
I admit it: I didn’t look forward to Roma. That’s not because of an aversion to non-English films or those with the small dramatic scale found here, though.
Instead, based on what I heard and saw of it, Roma just looked boring. I got the impression it’d offer more than two hours of domestic monotony with little to leaven the ennui.
You know what? My suspicions proved correct, as Roma brings us the thinnest of narratives and little dramatic momentum to grab us.
The fact Parasite scored the Best Picture Oscar denied to Roma becomes intriguing because both touch on themes related to social class. The two films depict the differences between the affluent and those who serve them, but they do so in radically dissimilar ways.
With Parasite, we get a brisk, nearly Hitchcockian tale of intrigue and deceit. With Roma… we don’t.
Indeed, we barely get a story at all. According to Cuarón, “[Roma] is an exploration of Mexico's social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven to this date and, above all, it's an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”
Sounds good, and in the director’s head, it proves rich, emotional and satisfying. For those of us who don’t reside inside Cuarón’s noggin, though, the journey seems much less likely to enthrall.
On the surface, the decision to focus on Cleo seems intriguing, as the view of a privileged life through the lens of the working class comes with potential. Perhaps if Cleo and/or the rest offered anything other than the most basic of bland characters, this might succeed.
Alas, no one here ever develops into an even vaguely compelling personality. For all the emphasis on Cleo, she never turns into anything more than an object of moderate sympathy, as we care for her due to circumstances but not dramatic evolution.
Sure, Roma comes with plenty of room for interesting material, mainly via problematic romantic relationships. In addition to the split between Antonio and Sofia, Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) abandons her as soon as he learns of her pregnancy.
This leaves a story ripe with opportunity for drama, but Roma largely ignores these possibilities. Instead, it concentrates largely on the monotony of daily life.
In theory, I appreciate this low-key approach. Most movies would milk the character domains for all their melodramatic worth, so Cuarón’s decision to avoid ostentatious fireworks should make me happy.
Perhaps it would if something actually ever happened here. Since too much of the “plot” remains slow and dull, the movie remains off-putting, as we find too little to occupy our attention.
Cuarón clearly chose to emphasize day-to-day “nothing” as an illustration of a certain style of life. As depicted here, plenty of potentially dramatic events occur – an earthquake, riots, etc, - but they barely impact Cleo and the family.
I get it: they live in a bubble, and they only find themselves concerned with personal interactions. Point taken, Cuarón!
Again, this might prove effective if it felt like Cuarón built to a real purpose or point. He doesn’t, so the film ambles without much drama to maintain our attention.
Roma does attempt greater drama during its third act, with mixed results. A scene in which armed insurgents threaten Cleo proves laughable due to the idiotically coincidental identity of a gunman, but the segment in which Cleo gives birth offers the movie’s biggest punch, as tragedy results.
While this becomes the film’s most impactful sequence, it still doesn’t work as well as it should because Roma sets up Cleo in such a bland, distant manner. We should be devastated by the course of events, but instead, we just feel vaguely sad.
Along the way, Cuarón fashions a form of feminist tale, as he focuses on strong women who suffer from selfish men. Unfortunately, he brings no insight to the subject, and instead, he sticks us with hackneyed dialogue such as “no matter what they tell you, women are always alone”.
Eep. With lines like that, Cuarón got an Oscar nom for his screenplay?
Cuarón did win an Academy Award for the film’s photography, and that one seems deserved. Whatever I think of the rest of Roma, it provides a stunning visual achievement.
From start to finish, the movie boasts impeccable cinematography. Every frame seems worthy of note and looks gorgeous.
Too bad this becomes a triumph of style over substance. Roma may tell a tale of great personal importance to Cuarón, but that doesn’t make the end result interesting or compelling to anyone else. Roma becomes a beautiful but boring journey.