I’m beginning to think that I just don’t like Alfonso Cuarón all that much. Gravity left me cold, his Harry Potter movies were middling at best, and children of men, like most children of men, has not matured well. Netflix’s desperate play for studio legitimacy, in the form of Cuarón’s Roma, is one of those film’s that I’m supposed to like more than I do. Which is not necessarily to say that it’s a bad film, simply that it’s one that feels engineered for a specific purpose — namely, convincing arthouse audiences and skeptical critics that a streaming video service can finance worthwhile films. Trust me Netflix, we get it already.
Let me clarify those last statements by clarifying that Roma constitutes the only press screening I’ve ever attended that included concessions courtesy of the studio, and I have never received a slip-cased coffee table book encouraging me to consider a film for awards love. Yet such was the case with Roma, the cinematic equivalent of a Tinder date with overly airbrushed profile pics. Yes, it’s nice to look at — but it’s also trying way, way too hard. Whether or not these efforts will pay dividends with Academy voters remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Netflix desperately wants to be taken seriously as a studio.
And make no mistake, Roma is a beautiful film to watch, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Cuarón, acting not only as writer/director, but also as cinematographer, has produced a black-and-white masterpiece that defies the commercial odds in this day and age. Still, his homage to Italian neorealism falls short in the script department in ways that suggest he mistook the narrative deficiencies of Antonioni as gospel even as he strove to rip off Fellini’s aesthetic in the most egregious ways possible.
And that’s the crux of my problem with Roma — as much as he might like to be, Cuarón is no Fellini. His meandering script abandons all traditions of narrative structure, instead favoring a rambling anecdotal linearity, a story that moves from A to B with no real sense of impetus or import. While newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is truly remarkable in her turn as the unfortunate housemaid to a wealthy family in Mexico City, the role offers no real character development or opportunities for Aparicio’s Cleo to do much more than react to her circumstances and surroundings. As such, even the film’s most dramatic moments feel contrived and devoid of deeper meaning, stripped of their capacity to engender even the basest of sympathies.
Cuarón has indeed produced a visually stunning film, but it lacks the visceral sensuality of the classic films it seeks to emulate. No quantity of shots ripped off from better directors can adequately compensate for a flawed script, and no amount of marketing expenditure can convince me that a film is better than what I see on the screen. In an increasingly competitive market, one in which rival studios like Amazon are also seeking to grasp the brass ring of respectability, Netflix has its work cut out for it. While Roma very nearly accomplishes its appointed task, it falls short of the heights to which it aspires. Good as it is, it’s never quite great — and when you consider that the marketing push for this film almost certainly explain why your Netflix subscription cost just went up, it’s hard not to feel short-changed.