The women of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” do a lot. They cook, they clean, they sing lullabies, they shop, they do laundry, they turn out the lights at night, they open gates and answer phones, they laugh, cry and mourn. Mostly these actions are done by protagonist Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, an indigenous maid who serves four children growing up amid their parents' crumbling marriage in the Mexico City of 1970.
Yet for all that she does, Cleo doesn’t feel like a person so much as a down-market Stepford wife who excels at making banana smoothies. The film she inhabits has been declared a “masterwork” and “the best film of Cuaron’s career.” While it’s visually stunning, it’s emotionally stunted, with a script that allots very little space for her — or any of the characters — to express an opinion. You can’t run a Bechdel test on a film where the female protagonist is so quiet that another character asks her if she is mute. Behold the longest string of words Cleo speaks, which unravels over one of Cuarón’s many scenic vistas: “This feels like my village. It’s drier there. But it feels like it. The animals do that, too. It sounds like this. And smells the same.” It’s a feminine mystique that leans heavily on the mystique. “Working Girl” gave more voice to the voiceless than “Roma” does.
The writer-director seems to be the real main character of this movie. He seems very proud of the fact that he recognizes that women are, in fact, sentient and autonomous beings — a revelation that does not take him very far. At one point, Cleo tells her fellow maid, “I have so much to tell you,” and receives the reply: “I want to hear everything. I’ll be right back.” But, as with so much of “Roma,” we are forced to imagine that following exchange. Cuarón could have explored further, but he caves like the male physician at the hospital, who tells Cleo before she delivers her baby: “Dr. Velez won’t let me go in. You’ll do great, Cleo.” Dr. Velez, a woman, replies swiftly, “Feel free to come if you like.” So the male doctor, Cleo’s onetime employer, makes a new, lazier excuse: “I can’t. I have an appointment."
Similarly, Cuarón asks viewers to do the work of interpreting his images — that panorama, that held close-up on a shattered cup of pulque, that long shot of doctors attempting CPR on a stillborn baby girl as the mother looks on in silence (while passing her placenta) — and projecting depth and texture onto their delicate sparseness. Meanwhile, the character’s life story gets lost in visual translation. The whole thing somehow comes off like a film school project that’s equal parts earnest and smug — 2 hours and 15 minutes of Cleo filmed as a plastic bag caught in the wind. Film critics happy to ride that breeze as if it’s a breath of fresh air are the unwitting conquistadors of feminism.
When “Roma” gives any voice to any character, it’s a kind of ventriloquism: Cuarón’s impression — his projection — of how women, workers, wives and children act, talk and feel. In lieu of a backstory or motivation, early in the film, Cleo sings along with the radio while washing dishes: “When I tell you that I’m poor, you won’t ever smile again. I long to have it all and lay it at your feet. But I was born poor, and you’ll never love me.” It’s the most we ever hear of Cleo’s feelings about her station in life — and it comes piped through the radio. Even the film’s young men are hamstrung by caricature, creatures of Cuarón’s middle-aged mind. When Cleo confronts the father of her unborn baby at — where else? — his remote martial arts training camp, he dismisses her crudely as a servant. For all its balletic, cinematic finesse, “Roma” is a starkly crude story.
Of course, any machismo, chauvinism or general backwardness is true to the character of this period piece. Mexico in 1970 was not a hotbed of feminism. But is that the best that Cuarón — who gave us such an interesting, compelling and fully formed woman in Sandra Bullock’s astronaut in “Gravity” — is capable of in his homage to his own youth and identity? The point of a period piece is to impose some knowing lens to create a new artistic vision — “Life Is Beautiful,” “Lincoln,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Iron Lady” — not merely submit in the name of authenticity to mores, aesthetics and optics that have long since been rebuked. In 2018, “Roma” is as obtuse and unaware as a remake of “Manhattan” or “Last Tango in Paris.” “Manhattan” had its scenic vistas, too. The praise is well-intentioned but misplaced, the way critics celebrated the fluid sexuality of “Y Tu Mama También” even though the crucial threesome in that film ruins all of the relationships involved.
“Roma” does seem to advance one low-key feminist message: how men can have outsize psychological and dramatic effects on others, even when they are almost wholly absent from the screen (the just-shy-of-divorced mother of the house comes home drunk one night and tells Cleo: “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone"). But the director’s imagination stops short of understanding, or fully depicting, his female characters’ vulnerability in the face of that power. The film doesn’t allow for any vulnerability other than a macho, physical vulnerability: the threats of earthquake, forest fire, martial arts, gunpoint, dangerous ocean waves.
"Roma” is not a masterpiece any more than “Crash” or “Babel” was. It is merely tedious indulgence, all the more so in a year that, by contrast, saw so much truly revelatory work, including “Sorry to Bother You” and “BlacKkKlansman.” It has more in common with “La La Land” than with “Moonlight.” But the habitual arc of Hollywood’s expectations demands that “Roma” be celebrated now, maybe even laureled with awards, for how it spotlights faces that are usually unseen. “A Star Is Born,” proclaimed Vogue Mexico, on its cover featuring Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo. But it’s hard not to think of Viola Davis being acclaimed for her role in “The Help” — a role she regrets — or Barkhad Abdi, the actor nominated for an Oscar in his role opposite Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” who has gotten only small roles since.
Tokenism — especially in regressive roles — can bring more infamy than fame to actors.
Gay characters deserve more than AIDS. Black characters deserve more than Jim Crow or slavery. Jewish characters deserve more than ghettos and concentration camps. What does the indigenous protagonist of “Roma” deserve?
While Cuarón is a gifted storyteller, we can’t wait for him — or any other director of his fame and prominence — to become a fully realized feminist. Too often, so-called game-changers just give way to the next round, with the same rules. That’s Hollywood’s one and only franchise. “Roma” is a poetic and elegant portrait. But that’s it. And women deserve more than poetry and elegance.