There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma. There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast). The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way). We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism. It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.
But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec. Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose. The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer. The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film.
Yet, oddly, the viewer can only feel at a distance, passively watching the intimate explosions, wishing we could learn as much about the characters as the director Cuaron seems to be telling us about himself. “Behold, my childhood nanny and flawed saint!” he proudly shows us. “Look, that old sci-fi movie Marooned I saw as a kid in this big old Spanish gothic movie theater in the city is what made me want to make Gravity!” he winks. It’s this type of hyperbole mixed with personal minutiae that leaves Roma straining to be loved…from a distance, through a perfectly framed lens showcasing a beautifully framed shot that drips…flows…moves, and occasionally overwhelms. I want to love.