Magazine | January 28, 2019, Issue

And Now Please Thank the Servant Class

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (Netflix)

The end of 2018 brought the usual “best of the year” lists from my fellow critics,  many with the usual introductory flourish: In such a wonderful year for movies, it’s hard to narrow the best-of list to just ten . . .

Read the lists, but do not believe the flourishes. Two thousand eighteen was a lousy year for movies, with the usual overload of retread blockbusters supplemented by woefully few popular movies that work even as Oscar bait, let alone as art. Come Academy Award season, we may be stuck pretending that the first half of A Star Is Born was good enough to earn a clean sweep of the top categories — a dismal enough prospect to make a little self-deception among critics an understandable response.

Amid so much disappointment, it’s not surprising that a great deal of hope would be piled onto Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which like the Coen brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs was funded by Netflix and given a limited theatrical release to go with its streaming debut. Cuarón is an immense talent whose last offering, 2013’s Gravity, overcame a weak script to achieve legit cinematic magic while raking in more than $700 million worldwide. Roma promised to be very different, less commercial, but in a way that reeked of cinematic class — a portrait of Cuarón’s 1970s Mexico City youth, filmed in black and white, following the struggles of two women, his nanny and his mother, abandoned by the men in their lives against a backdrop of political tumult. If any film could redeem 2018, surely it would be this kind of great-director passion project, beautiful and personal and just exotic enough.

Those expectations help explain why the film itself, now available and certainly worth watching, hasn’t occasioned any kind of politicized backlash. The fact that it fills a yawning aesthetic void in the year that was, the fact that it foregrounds women and casts a cold eye on male paternal failure, the fact that Cuarón has official bard-of-Mexico status in our not-exactly-heavily-Hispanic film industry . . . all of this has enabled Roma to escape being read as a long encomium to a certain kind of white-male privilege.

But watching it I couldn’t help imagining how the film would have been received if instead of being set in Roma, a lovely upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood, it had been set in some suburban-American equivalent in the same era, and instead of foregrounding Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), the Mixtec-speaking nanny to a family that includes the preteen Cuarón (though he isn’t identified), it had featured an African-American domestic playing the same loyal, tractable, self-sacrificing role for her Anglo-Saxon charges.

In that case, I suspect, it would have been damned by many of our would-be progressive censors as Problematic in the Extreme. Because a key theme of the movie, or at least a very plausible reading, is that an ethnic servant’s loyal service to her white, upper-class family, through all kinds of trials and tribulations, is an act of heroic devotion that deserves celebration because it led to the career of the man now memorializing her on film. Meanwhile, revolutionary politics are an irrelevant distraction or, worse, a destructive obstacle to human happiness; the possible suffering or exploitation of the servant’s rural relatives (hinted at in a few sentences here and there) is background noise for the main story, her life with her employer; and when tragedy strikes the servant (as it does, in a truly harrowing sequence), we are supposed to be gratified that she can achieve healing and redemption by averting a similar tragedy for the family that she serves.

Doesn’t sound very woke, does it? And, crucially, Roma isn’t being told from the perspective of the young Cuarón, which might justify a kind of solipsistic, employer’s-eye perspective on the nanny’s life; instead we see everything through Cleo’s eyes, to the point where key parts of the upper-class family’s story, and especially the dissolution of the parental marriage, end up happening slightly offstage. Cuarón clearly wants this to be Cleo’s tale, his tribute to her life — but that tribute plays as a paean to the nobility of lower-caste service to upper-caste wives and kids.

None of this is an argument for or against the quality of the film; it’s just an expression of mild surprise that so few left-leaning critics in our politically sensitive moment are reading Roma through this lens.

On the actual question of quality, the movie is good but not, I think, the masterpiece that Cuarón’s fans were hoping for. The choice to film in black and white feels a wee bit pretentious, depriving the viewer of the rich colors that many of the street scenes imply, and the deliberate slowness of the first two-thirds makes the hammer blows of trauma at the end feel a little bit manipulative, like an attempt to knock you down before you leave the theater so you’re sure you just watched greatness.

But might the rather unwoke, not-quite-great Roma still be the best picture of this mediocre year? I wouldn’t rule it out.

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