In “Roma,” writer-director Alfonso Cuarón rationalizes chic aesthetic loop-the-loops by pretending to social consciousness. The movie concerns an indigenous maid who serves a white Mexican family. Though critics have compared it to Italian Neorealism, its canned “poetic” content suggests nothing so much as a coffee-table book on the picturesqueness of poverty. It’s difficult to determine whose tone-deafness is more embarrassing, Cuarón’s or the critics’: Both are so eager to find nobility in brownness that they fail to detect the whiffs of condescension emanating from Cuarón’s conception, in which the maid is repeatedly compared — favorably, I suppose — to the family dog. What to make of the weirdly numbed manner in which Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo is presented? Cuarón provides her with few qualities aside from the doggy attributes of steadfastness and loyalty. The charitable take is to assume that Cuarón is attempting to approach Cleo from the outside, to appreciate her as an other without diminishing her by interpretation; this is how Kurosawa treats the native woodsman in the great “Dersu Uzala.” But Cuarón has little of Kurosawa’s intelligence or wariness; ultimately, he’s a splashy filmmaker who’s good at “dazzling” set-pieces and swooshy kinetic effects. Here, he allows these predilections to take precedence over his heroine; Aparicio is so mobbed by style, her performance scarcely has room to breathe. Trudging nobly through the movie’s sets and locations, blankly reflecting our preconceptions back at us (she has nothing else to give), Cleo starts to seem like a pretext for Cuarón’s painstaking recreation of his childhood Mexico. If there’s something gross about the way that Cuarón asks us to take his arted-up vanity project as a courageous social statement, there’s something even grosser about the way that the critics have encouraged us to flatter ourselves by condoning it. By accepting this dum-dum thing as art we’re supposed to prove that we care about the people who tend our lawns and scrub our bathrooms. I think it’s more accurate to say that we prove our willingness to use them as moral tchotchkes.
- While watching “Roma” I repeatedly recalled Suzana Amaral’s 1985 “Hour of the Star,” a movie of similar bent that actually bears comparison to things like “Umberto D” and “Nights of Cabiria.” These days, no one talks about “Hour of the Star.” I think it makes “Roma” look pretty silly.