First impressions matter. When the camera finally pans up from the luscious opening visual of water on stone, more water on stone, even more water on stone; my imagination stirs at the wondrous places it might lift us up to. That Roma opens in an urban carport is a bit disappointing. We are in a compact yet airy house, upper class though not grandiose, somewhere south of the Tropic of Capricorn. A somnolent place to be sure, where shade is more precious than light. As the camera pans the carefully arranged interior, immediately I feel cheated. Not by the detail, which is precise; nor the pace, which is leisurely. Rather, by the color. Or lack thereof.
Is there any place where color is more integral to its fabric and energy than Mexico City? Rio perhaps, Cartagena, Mumbai, Barcelona, maybe even Miami: cities banded across lower latitudes where orange and red, turquoise and green punctuate the sharp edges of bright sun and deep shadow. But Roma strips Mexico City of color. As if Bergman shifted his diffuse Scandinavian gloom 40 degrees to the South.
Roma and I get off to a bad start. Then things deteriorate. The first time the father wedges the Ford into the carport, okay. The second iteration; we’ve seen this before. Then the mother wedges between two trucks. Finally, when I’ve spent more time than I care to in that carport, she bangs the heck out of it one more time. The metaphor is beaten beyond meaning or humor. Ditto the dog poop. Ditto, ditto, ditto the airplanes flying overhead, directly above the focus of our attention at every plot turn. The plane flies between the extended arms of the fake army leader. It flies above our downtrodden heroine’s final climb to the roof. In pursuit of what noble deed? To hang the laundry.
Clearly I have missed the point of this important movie. So, after the final credits, I indulge in reviews after the fact, podcasts that dissect Roma’s marvels and mystery. It’s about class conflict (by the end of the film, love has been expressed to the maid, but she’s still the maid). It’s a memory film about Director Cuaron’s youth (And? So?) It’s magic realism. Actually, Roma is anything but magical realism. Despite an earthquake, with terrible special effects; a wild fire, with even worse effects; and a student protest that spills into a furniture store, there’s nothing magic in this movie’s realism. The distilled black and white images polish privilege to a silky luster, but they don’t even hint how that privilege might—or even should—change. Magic realism bursts with the color of imagination. This movie is grounded in a reality rut.
Still, it’s easy to see why Roma is a movie for our times.
The film possesses the dramatic arc of a #MeToo darling. The men are all cardboard villains, the women complex, fully human, yet ultimately heroic. The sunset tableau on the beach, all strength and unity, includes only women and children. We are long overdue films with fully fleshed female characters. Can that only be achieved by making the men simpleton cruel? Are our screens too small to breath life into a full range of characters?
The brilliant light of that same tableau also washes away the skin tones that define who is the maid and who is the mistress. Roma may be set among Brown people to our South, thus triggering all manner of reaction identity politics north of the Rio Grande. Yet the film is not about immigration or Northbound striving. It’s about social hierarchy, rooted in race. The maid is smaller, darker, more indigenous than the people she works for. Which makes me wonder: would Roma enjoy the same critical acclaim if it were set a few degrees further north? If the maid’s skin were a shade darker, her boss’s a shade lighter? If instead of Brown and Browner, they were actually Black and White? Consider a Roma set in the Mississippi delta, down the road, perhaps from last year’s richer, deeper, more nuanced Netflix Oscar nominee, Mudbound. Would we still applaud this sweet, though obtuse maid, and her erratic employer if they represented stereotypes closer to home?
If ‘Best Picture of the Year’ is the film that most represents our times, perhaps Roma deserves to win that award. Narrow in scope, incidental in plat, it reflects our times only too well. The characters are affected by big events (violence, natural disaster) without any attempt, or even inclination, to affect them. If so inclined, everyone left milling about the house at movie’s end can claim victimhood.
The forces that created the world of Roma (i.e. men) are all gone. Those remaining have no plan for how to maintain, or better yet improve, the terrible things that men have wrought. We’re inclined to a positive outcome: after all, the maid is climbing; and there’s that plane; and just about anybody could do better managing the world than men have done. Yet in truth, the women and children have no Plan A, B, or C for what might happen next.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like movies that are bigger than life, that inspire me to transcend man’s malicious nature (as in Mudbound) or celebrate triumph over adversity (The Florida Project) or maybe simply bubble over in shared ecstasy (Bohemian Rhapsody). But we don’t live in an era of enlightened perspective, or hope, or euphoria. And so we celebrate Roma, a monochromatic vision of the most colorful city on earth; a solitary woman who, at the end of the film, is still the maid.