As I watched it on Netflix, I found I couldn’t much like “Roma,” a top Oscars contender that the streaming service is massively promoting for Best Picture. I started mulling over why I felt so at odds with near universal opinion and read some of the effusive reviews (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian: “thrilling, engrossing, moving”). I found I liked them even less.
If Alfonso Cuarón, the director, had limited himself to the alternately subtle and violent portrait he draws of the Mexico City of his youth — a city I came to love, for all its problems, when I lived there many years later — I would have applauded. And I doubt “Roma” would have received nearly such wide attention or praise.
“A personal epic set in Mexico City in the early 1970s,” writes Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, the film “centers on a young indigenous woman who works as a maid for a middle-class, white family.” “Roma” thus caught a wave of concern about racial inequality. Cuarón even underlined the point by dedicating it to his actual nanny, also indigenous. Just how does a white, upper-class director’s personal epic center on an indigenous woman?
Read more commentary:
Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’ shows Hollywood’s blatant contempt for Italian-Americans
Celebrate ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ flaws and all. It has redefined Hollywood and being Asian.
Oscar nominee Regina King: My commitment to gender equality is only the beginning
‘A Star is Born’: What the movie gets wrong about treatment for alcohol, opioid addiction
Parenthetically, contrary to what critics say, this was not a middle-class Mexican family. Only 2 percent of Mexicans of that era had even attended university. The father in the film is an accomplished doctor, the mother a biochemist. The family is upper-class, full stop.
Cleo, the indigenous nanny, does get the most camera time. We see details of her life from dawn to dusk: waking the children and putting them to sleep, mutely washing dog dirt from the Ford Galaxie’s tiled parking spot, wiping the mouthpiece of a phone to clean off germs after answering it. We also see, in Cleo, the affective ties that have forever bound poor, indigenous Mexico to wealthier, lighter-skinned Mexico. But the human being who must lurk somewhere between the quotidian details and socioeconomic symbol is hardly visible.
Cleo’s character is lost in upper-class perspective
Cleo speaks in telegraphic phrases, at best. In a typical scene, the wife of the household, abandoned by her husband, comes home from a drunken spree and mutters to her: “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” The statement is about women in general, not an indigenous woman, and the person who articulates it is upper-class. Cleo just stares back.
We see virtually nothing of Cleo’s life outside the family orbit. She’s from “a dusty Mixtec village somewhere in Oaxaca,” Ty Burr colorfully writes in The Boston Globe. Actually, we aren’t told the village is dusty, only that she’s from the poor state of Oaxaca, an entry on a resume. We learn in passing that the government expropriated her family farm but not even what was grown there. We have no idea why she left to find her destiny in Mexico City, what her ambitions, hopes and fears might be.
A report in Variety on the backstory underlines this lacuna. Liboria Rodríguez, the director’s actual childhood nanny, it turns out, often talked to him “about her hardships as a girl, about feeling cold or hungry.” She would tell about “her father, who used to play an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame that’s almost lost to the ages now, or about witch doctors who would try to cure people in her village.”
‘Roma’ doesn’t build bridges or tear down walls
Why did no such stories make it into “Roma”? Not for Cuarón’s lack of access to them. While filming, he called Rodríguez obsessively to check details. “He was getting all this information without me knowing what it was for,” she told Variety. “Then it started to become weird,” she continued. He would ask, “Libo, what did you used to wear? How did you dress?” But he asked about externals, not concerns, ambitions, thoughts.
In short, the film is, indeed, “a personal epic.” It’s not about Cleo but the auteur behind the camera — his gratitude toward the nanny shown taking the future director to the cinema, his guilt about her subordinate position, his everything.
Why did so many critics laud “Roma”? Aside from waxing eloquent about its photography — “dynamically shot in a pellucid black and white,” Bradshaw writes, fairly enough — they seem to buy its conceit, holding up the indigenous in the abstract while merely glancing over indigenous peoples in concrete. It’s an attitude not unlike that of the global upper middle-class toward poor immigrants.
When he won awards for best foreign-language film and best director at the Golden Globes, Cuarón said fine cinema “tears down walls and builds bridges” to other cultures: “We begin to understand exactly how much we have in common.” But “Roma” does not build bridges to Cleo or tear down walls that separate her. It uses her to broadcast a story about upper-class Mexico.
Jonathan Schlefer is a senior researcher at Harvard Business School and the author of “Palace Politics: How the Ruling Party Brought Crisis to Mexico.”