TIFF Review: ‘ROMA’ a dull sensory overload that lacks agency

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James C. Clay  // Film Critic

ROMA

Rated R, 135 minutes
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Cast: Yalitzia Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Veronica Garcia

This article was written after ROMA’s premiere on Sept. 10, 2018 at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it has been updated after a second viewing for its theatrical release.

Every frame of Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA is a postcard that captures a lost time in 1970s Mexico City. It’s a deeply personal piece of work from Cuarón that depicts the women in his life that influenced family, art and how to move through hardships when the social structure doesn’t help the ones in need. This black-and-white Spanish-language film brings an authenticity to a culture that has been vilified by current American politics. The beauty in ROMA comes from its aesthetics, but more importantly, it paints a portrait of a forgotten voice. However, this Netflix original lacks agency within its character beats that has a frustrating passivity to the narrative. Cuarón’s film comes to the brink of being cruel to its setting and characters.

In the story, we enter housekeeper Cleo’s (Yalitza Aparicio) world through the soothing sounds of water flushing down a drain as she mops a long hallway in the upper-middle class home of the family who employs her. Cleo is the type of woman who fades into the background with a smile as she works her daily routine conducting household chores. There’s a rhythm to Cuarón’s film that allows the space for his audience to observe the seemingly minute details of Cleo’s life. From the family dog’s droppings always being left in the garage, to the way a car is carefully parked into a garage, behaviors and random items in the home are used to tell the story  rather than a traditional narrative arc. Through Cleo’s eyes, we get a geography for the compound, like home and the Mexican culture at large.

Cuarón uses sound design that makes mundane noises, like mop water draining, ambient music. Developing a relationship with the language of ROMA can be complicated unless you are able to screen this film in a high-end theater; otherwise, the experience will be lost on your senses. There’s an absorbing feeling that comes across when the film is viewed in that prism. Many of the elements work in concert, from the sound design to the background actors, yet the setting absorbs the viewer until the small touches lose their meaning. 

The film operates as a series of vignettes depicting Cleo as somebody who has little to no personal identity. Not only does the world not accept her place, but the story itself positions itself to continually punish this woman. Cuaron’s reasoning for putting Cleo (and the audience) through the turmoil is a bit inconclusive.

ROMA is a place where crisis meets comedy. In the film, you see Cleo frantically running down the street looking for Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), the man who impregnated her. You feel her urgency, but in the background, someone is suddenly shot out of a cannon during a parade. There’s always something going on, so keep an eye out for little nuggets of silliness, even though it’s impossible to miss a drum-line trudging down the street. Cuarón places an obnoxious sense of humor at the forefront of an otherwise tragic tale. For all the added elements working in tandem, the film doesn’t allow much time or cause for exploration of the frame.

Cuarón’s portrayal of a woman’s undying love and ability to adapt is a tender notion that will cue waterworks on more than one occasion. The men in ROMA are aloof and self-absorbed, which frequently alienates themselves from their loved ones. The director bludgeons the viewer with a deeply cynical message that life is a luck of the draw and we have little control over the dominion of our own lives.

Aparicio is in nearly every moment of ROMA. She has the screen presence of a seasoned actor mixed with a humble disposition. However, it’s as if Cuarón is looking down upon her, rather than celebrating her tenacity and resolve. Cleo is a precious character who’s constantly left to the side and forgotten, and the artist telling her story rarely gives her a voice of her own. Cleo has the ability to make the audience run the gamut of emotions, yet her performance is stifled. The film climaxes with waves crashing onto Cleo as she ventures into the ocean, which doubles perfectly as a metaphor for the constant hits she’s been taking in her daily life.

ROMA reconfirms the ability that cinema has to empathize for the ones that are often ignored by society. Cuarón’s directing touch guides us to a sensory overload of sight and sound that shows a technical master at work. It sets an admirable, if not dull tone, that operates outside the spectrum of realism. ROMA is art. ROMA is life. ROMA is monotonous.

Grade: C+

ROMA is now playing in select theaters. It will be available on Netflix Friday, Dec. 14.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, and Daniela Demesa as Sofi in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Image by Alfonso Cuarón.