I saw Roma a month and a half ago (I remember it was St. Lucy’s day), and I haven’t rewatched it since, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive here. Or fair, really. I don’t think it demands sincere engagement, since everything about it screams steer clear of anything below the surface. Carmen Juares Palma, who worked for six years as a housekeeper herself, has said everything there really is to say on the subject: it’s good to see a representation of someone who is discriminated against as a poor, racialized woman without blinking at that discrimination, but her passivity even in intimate, private spaces shows a real lack of imagination, and her salvation of and solidarity with her employer are both deeply offensive. (Okay, the “deeply offensive” characterization is my own; see also this review.) Look, I don’t care that this doesn’t pander to American audiences by explaining the Corpus Christi massacre or drowning us in period-piece exposition. And I want Yalitza Aparicio’s Vogue cover framed on my wall. But if you dramatize the inner life of your domestic servant (for housekeeper really is euphemistic) for accolades, you better make sure you remember to give her one. “I have no access to her inner life so I dared not imagine” is not a statement; “I did not care to see it” would have been.
In a Hollywood (for this is a Hollywood film, don’t pretend otherwise) where “intersectionality” is a buzzword you’d think a conclusion about solidarity between rich white mother and downtrodden brown nanny would at least raise some eyebrows. And it has, I suppose, and I don’t know why I still take the Oscars seriously, but it seems I have retained my ability to be shocked by the abundance of good faith we are collectively willing to waste. Alfonso Cuarón is not the social justice warrior you are waiting for. (But then, you aren’t waiting for one. We are all the champagne lady in the forest fire.) He’s a technically brilliant filmmaker, but technical achievement in film is not inherently good, and employed in the service of profoundly unethical art, it is, in fact, bad. If you string together long takes in black and white, everyone will overlook the fact that your film is not saying anything. Worse, they will overlook the fact that it is saying something bad.
I wouldn’t be so grossed out had the marketing not been so laudatory, but a “love letter to a woman who raised you” that involves dramatizing her stillbirth and forcing her to perform relief as she hugs you instead is a hell of a way to show it. That may have been Libo’s experience, but that is no reason for it to be Cleo’s. The effect of that dramatization, embedded in a narrative in which she exhibits no other meaningful interiority, is “please don’t have any feelings that aren’t convenient for us.” As my friend Sergio put it, Cuarón could have put very mild criticisms in this movie without indicting his childhood and yet he refused even to do that. He managed to give Fermín and Ramón full personalities—hmm, I wonder what could be the common thread there—but not Cleo. And as my friend Araceli said, the movie seems to be totally okay with that. If you give a woman screentime you’re feminist, right? (It passes the Bechdel Test…in Mixtec!) We can take Cuarón out of it, though. Not to be an insufferable grad student, but art has a social function, and killing the author does not solve the problem of this being a movie that encourages masses of white people to congratulate themselves on noticing brown people exist.
It’s like the well intentioned white liberal became a movie. The aesthetics are fine, the politics are bad, the effect is boring, and it’s nominated for a thousand Oscars. Cuarón 2020.