Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma — about the downtrodden Mexican maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who toils in the spacious, two-floor urban residence of a middle-class doctor — has been dubbed the film of the year for the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and all the mini-Manhattans across wealthy white America whose denizens prefer dark-skinned help to aid their leisure-class economy. Cuaron’s on record saying the film pays tribute to the nanny of his own bourgeois childhood. I can’t recall another art movie so openly patronizing toward its subject, yet so self-flattering of its maker’s largesse. (The best movie on this topic would be Todd Solondz’s harrowing 2004 Storytelling, in which bourgeois indifference meets hilarious Third World consciousness.)
Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio) is the perfect dumb peasant. Short and stubby, she’s naturally childlike and obedient, even with the film’s angry muchacho, the member of a militant martial-arts cult who impregnates, threatens, and abandons her. In a parallel subplot, Cleo’s neurotic mistress warns her, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone!” Roma, titled after a district in Mexico City, plays the SJW trifecta: race, class, feminism.
For a cineaste like Cuaron, that impudent title rips off Fellini’s visionary docu-phantasia Fellini Roma (1972). The Mexican auteur uses his routine camera moves and visual ostentation to apotheosize his Millennial’s stunt. Critics ignorant of the enormous humanist intervention made by the Italian neorealist masters Visconti (La Terra Trema), Rossellini (Roma: Citte Aperta), and DeSica (Bicycle Thieves) fool themselves that Cuaron’s contemporary political sentimentality works on the same level — “dreaming of a better yesterday,” as Herman Cain termed it. But Cuaron’s self-serving approach lacks comparable spiritual, political, and artistic complexity.
The sick joke of Cuaron’s Roma winning the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival confirms that Europe’s own immigrant crisis has become self-congratulatory — more maudlin than sympathetic. It seems perfectly timed for the American media’s refusal to call out the Central American “caravan” for the invasion that it really is.
Cuaron wastes screen time with episodes glorifying Cleo’s ignorance — from watching American sci-fi spectacles such as Marooned or bovine moseying through Mexico’s socioeconomic strata. (These grandiose set-pieces recall Alexander Payne’s phony Third World underground in Downsizing.)
The Cuaron crowd even patronizes itself. (Rolling Stone’s pundit said Cuaron “breaks through walls of language, culture, class.”) They blame Cleo’s frustrated padrone; his complaint about the apartment courtyard’s incessant dog manure is right — Cleo’s bad at her job. (Surely the great, acerbic Surrealist Luis Buñuel would use that fertilized foyer symbolically.) But dull-witted Cleo is consecrated because she sacrifices herself for her employer’s bratty kids and numbly endures her own heartbreak. Cleo’s miscarriage earns a Margaret Sanger Prize for Most Convenient Third World Eugenics. Has Cleo’s spirit never risen to a mariachi band’s love plaint like the working-class Mexican women in Julian Hernandez’s A Thousand Clouds of Peace? Roma appeals to the worst political response of modern filmgoers: their apathy.
Everything that goes wrong in Roma goes right in Museo. Alonso Ruizpalacios follows his 2014 Gueros with a different exploration of Mexican heritage — minus Cuaron’s patronizing to gringo expectation. Museo also features a doctor’s son but this one, Juan Nuñez (Gael Garcia Bernal), is a principled mischief-maker based on the real-life hellion who stole sacred, priceless Aztec artifacts from an anthropology museum in 1985.
Juan’s predicament, boys searching for their ancestors — or the imaginary father figures they idealize in troubled times — is Ruizpalacios’ personal subject. (The film’s theme song, “Riders on the Storm,” by the Doors, provides sufficiently dreamy acknowledgement of American pop influence.)
As in Gueros, Museo bends genres — the road movie and the heist movie — always digging into the characters’ sexual and spiritual fantasies. Juan’s cohort, Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), is slow yet dutiful — to his ailing father and to Juan. (Ortizgris recalls Marcello Mastroianni’s chagrin.) Museo gets deeply into national cultural heritage, a subject contemporary American filmmakers abhor. This patriotism isn’t simple flag-waving; it’s an inherent understanding passed on by parents.
Museo bests Hollywood heritage flicks such as A Night at the Museum and the first, affecting National Treasure film (evoked when Ruizpalacios uses adventure music as ironic commentary on Juan’s desperation). Bernal is too old to play ingénue, but his commitment to the film’s genuine if sophomoric passion is laudable. The film’s deep patriotism is remarkable. Juan’s hoax is inspired when the Tlaloc god statue is moved from its original inland site to the anthropology museum. His dismay recalls the shocking relocation of an entire church in John Boorman’s Deliverance, which signified an important cultural/spiritual change.
Ruizpalacios belongs to the small group of authentic Mexican cineastes, such as Julian Hernandez (Broken Sky) and Sergio Tovar Velarde (4 Moons), whereas Mexican directors such Cuaron and his colleagues Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and Guillermo del Toro (who brand themselves “The Three Amigos”) merely seek Western attention and globalist praise. Given that trio’s enormous acclaim (each has dominated this decade’s Oscars), allow me to apply some necessary critical clarification: This year’s best Mexican film import is not Roma; it is Museo.