Cuaron is a master filmmaker who creates true hyperrealism with Roma; a front seat to everyday life. It’s admirable in its approach and beautifully photographed, but there is an emotional disconnect that can’t be shaken. Altruistic, stoic, and almost apathetic.
Roma takes the fly-on-the-wall approach of monitoring an upper-class family in Mexico City in the early 70’s, as seen through the eyes of their young employee Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). She cares for the family’s four children, waits on the mother, and helps with the grandmother, all while the father is rarely home as he travels to Quebec for work regularly doing research as a physician. Alfonso Cuaron grew up in Mexico City in the 1970s, and his new film is a love letter to how he grew up; a deeply personal work from the man who has brought us Gravity, and the great Children of Men. Like his Y Tu Mama Tambien, which deals with three young people in their twenties as they grapple the political and economic realities of living in Mexico, the characters in Roma deal with the economic disparity between the working class and the upper class, and the political uprising they are surrounded in as result.
Roma, at its best, takes you to another time and place, which is something only the best films do. The film is beautifully photographed, the cinematography is close to breathtaking, and the sound quality is different than almost anything you have heard this year; there is no score to the film, so you are immersed in the sounds of the city in which the family dwells. You hear individual birds chirp, cars starting, children laughing, doors closing all around you. The result is a true slice of everyday life.
While I admired the approach, there is an emotional disconnect within the film’s frame that cannot be shaken, no matter the visual marvel that Cuaron curates. Cleo is a stoic young woman who does not show emotion while dealing with the hardships of working-class life, working for a family that does not necessarily think of her as their equal, and caring about them as though she is a part of it. Like the protagonist, the film mirrors her stoic nature, showing little or no feelings, not just between the players involved, but also in how the film treats its characters.
There is no question Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker who displays a true sense of hyperrealism with Roma, which offers a front-row seat to everyday life in Mexico City. But the film’s emotional void with its characters results in a lack of motivation that should be driving its story. While the film as a whole can be admired, even as a love letter or not, Roma is closed off emotionally from its audience; the viewer is left to only observe the characters, are disconnected from the feelings involved, and unable to invest themselves in the outcomes.
Roma is technically extraordinary, a new type of filmmaking that can be taken as a non-fiction original film (almost how Capote changed writing with the non-fiction novel over 50 years ago), that cuts off the viewer from the emotions behind it and keeps them always an arm’s length away.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.