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The Dartmouth
May 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘Roma’ captures the mundanity of daily life but lacks emotion

As a film-goer, I watch movies to escape reality — to dive into a fantasy and feel immersed in a new environment. All of this is accomplished by the trademarks of a film: action, dialogue and acting. It’s clear from the movies that often win at the box office that most audiences also appreciate similarly exciting, enthralling films. Yet among the films most critically lauded this year is Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film “Roma.”

As a film, "Roma" is not the most exciting, nor the most interesting. There’s so much in this movie that forces the viewer to confront a brutal reality, rather than escaping into another world. I personally found it hard to sit through over two hours of this film, which juxtaposes the difficult issues of sexism, poverty and racism in a stark storyline where monumental events are interspersed with images of the protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) , living her daily life as an indigenous live-in maid for a middle-class family in Mexico City. There are parts of this film where viewers watch Cleo fulfill her daily chores, from washing dishes to doing the laundry — nothing more, nothing less. Cuarón puts in these scenes to build the world around Cleo and confront the viewer with the monotony of her life, yet while watching Cleo, I couldn’t help but feel the supreme boredom inherent in the scene. This is most likely the boredom she also feels in her life, a boredom that she alleviates with brief outings with her friends and boyfriend, Fermin. 

These scenes of daily life are increasingly jolted by events such as a pregnancy, an affair, a student protest and the threat of drowning — it mimics that patterns of real life, where unexpected life events sometimes jolt our own daily routines. Yet while I understand this choice, I did not enjoy it. It’s hard to say that I was especially engaged and interested while watching Cleo sweep or clean the house, especially for great lengths of time. The slow-pace of the film and the overall minimal dialogue might help add to the rather bleak atmosphere and the overall mood — again to reinforce the idea that Cleo feels this sense of stupor all of the time. But I must admit, it’s not enjoyable as a viewer.

Cleo is undoubtedly the core of this film; she is the perspective through whom we see the world around her. Yet as a viewer, one often feels frustrated as she is often rendered mute and powerless in her interactions with her boyfriend and the family she works for. Her expressions are sometimes all the viewer has to go by to see her inner life; she is sometimes rendered as almost a background character, someone standing by while the action takes place around her. This clearly works as a depiction of how someone in her position — an indigenous person, a maid, a woman — might feel they must act at all times, yet I could feel myself feeling more disconnected as the film continued. In the beginning, I could empathize with the emotions she would have been feeling, but it began to feel as though, instead of empathizing, I was feeling the emotions that Cleo should feel – horror, anger, sadness, despair – for her. Eventually, I turned off these feelings and moved through the rest of the movie just as removed and unconnected as Cleo. 

I understand that this may be to force viewers to confront the fact that Cleo is most likely numb to many of the things that happen to her; her role as a background figure, as a marginalized character overwhelms any emotions that she might feel. However, as audience member, I find it important to live vicariously through characters. Her lack of emotion, even in a private space, made it difficult to connect and understand Cleo as a full person. In the effort to make viewers confront the reality of Cleo’s identity, I wonder if Cuarón took away an element of Cleo’s humanity and complexity as a person. 

Much of the movie industry relies on the fact that people watch movies to escape from their daily and mundane lives; "Roma" defies this entirely and does not provide any sort of escape. While it is clear that this film is an intensely personal piece to the director, and portrays a character who would normally be unacknowledged in a regular Hollywood production, it was difficult for me to make it to the end of this film. I can’t say that it was enjoyable to feel the kind of bleak numbness and frustration that is compounded by the black-and-white imagery, the lack of dialogue and the subtle acting. In some regards, I think the film might have packed a larger punch as a short film, rather than a feature length piece. My opinion of this film might be controversial, considering "Roma" is up for 10 Academy Award nominations, but for viewers who are like me and do not normally enjoy art house films, I can’t recommend you watch this movie. 

Veronica Winham
Veronica ('22) is a writer for The Dartmouth. She is from Maui, Hawaii, and is majoring in English and government. She is also on the cross country and track teams.