Thursday, December 20, 2018

Five Comments on Roma

Alfonso Cuarón's Roma has been generating a lot of conversation recently, for reasons that sometimes seem only tangentially connected to the film itself.  First, because it's a serious Oscar contender shot in black and white, with dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec, and starring a complete newcomer.  Second, because it's a Netflix movie that is probably the platform's first genuine masterpiece, which has also led to a side-conversation about whether it's worth watching on a home screen or even a personal device.  (As one of the people lucky enough to have a theatrical release of the film near her, my answer is that Roma definitely benefits from a big screen and a theatrical sound system, but that it's worth watching any way you can.)

Along the way, the film itself, which covers a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid and nanny in the home of an affluent Mexico City family in the early 70s, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Cuarón based the film on recollections from his own childhood, and has dedicated it to the woman who cared for him as a child, on whom Cleo is based.  As a result, I think some people have dismissed Roma as a simple family melodrama--especially since its plot revolves around the twin crises of the family's father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), leaving home and taking up with a mistress, while Cleo is left pregnant and in a lurch by an untrustworthy man--or at best, focused on its technical accomplishments and not its storytelling ones.  Which is a shame, because Roma is one of the most beautiful, moving, effectively-written movies I've seen in some time, and it deserves more in-depth discussion about how it achieves its effect on the level of visuals, writing, and character work.  I'm too overwhelmed by the film to write a proper review, but here are a few observations that have lingered with me.
  • At its most basic level, Roma is a story about unequal love.  It would be easy to makes a movie about a saintly maid being abused by her heartless employers.  But while there are moments in the film where the family's treatment of Cleo is inexcusable--chiefly when the matriarch, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), lashes out at Cleo as she unravels in the wake of her marriage's breakdown, but also when it becomes clear that the children, though they love Cleo deeply, don't respect her or her authority--most of their interactions with her are suffused with kindness and love.  When Cleo finds herself pregnant and unmarried, Sofia offers her both material and emotional support.  When she loses the baby, it's clear that giving her time to heal and recover both physically and emotionally is important to the entire family.  In some respects, Cleo is even better off as a maid than in her own community--as she observes to her friend, she can't visit her mother during her pregnancy, and it's unclear whether she ever confides in her family about her experiences over the course of the movie.  The film's final set-piece, in which Cleo rescues two of the children after they're swept out to sea, ends in a profound declaration of love from both Sofia and the children.

    At the same time, we are never allowed to forget that Cleo loves the family more than they love her.  That she gives to them more than they give to her (and that what they give is far less than what they could give--when Cleo goes into labor and is rushed, alone, into the delivery room, Antonio, a doctor at the hospital, stops by to reassure her with a genuine concern and fondness, in one of his most human and sympathetic moments in the movie; but when Cleo's doctor offers to let him stay in the delivery room, he quickly demurs and walks away).  The trip to the beach that allows Cleo to fully heal from the loss of her baby, and experience catharsis over her complicated feelings towards her pregnancy, culminates with her returning to her duties as a maid.  Being OK, for Cleo, means going back to serving the people who just proclaimed their love and devotion to her.  The film's final scene sees her gathering the family's discarded laundry and taking it to the roof to be washed, as they sit together and chat about their recent vacation.  There's no cruelty or injustice here (beyond, that is, the broader injustice of the way Mexican society in the movie is shown to be deeply stratified), but there is inequality, including in the affection and care that Cleo and the family offer to one another.

    It can be hard to know how to respond to this.  Some reviewers have dinged the film for not pushing hard enough at the way class distorts its relationships.  It's tempting to accuse Cuarón of romanticizing his old nanny's life--Cleo is, after all, characterized by her cheerful selflessness, her generosity and open heart, and it's tempting to wonder how idealized a portrait she is.  But the film feels too complicated, too well-written and acted, and Cleo herself feels too human and looms too large in the film's landscape, for this criticism to entirely land.  It seems harder to admit that sometimes love isn't just.  Some people take what they can get and make do, while others take what's offered to them and don't wonder whether they've done enough to deserve it.  It can leave you feeling uneasy, watching Cleo's happiness and knowing that she deserves so much more of it, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

  • A lot has been written about the film's use of visuals, particularly the long pans and tracking shots that have become Cuarón's hallmark.  In particular, attention has been paid to a sequence near the end of the film, in which Cleo and the family's grandmother, Teresa (Verónica Garcia), find themselves caught the middle of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, when government-backed paramilitaries attacked student protesters.  Cuarón situates his camera at the windows of the second story of a department store, tracking calmly across the violence and then returning to the terrified shoppers within the store.  This is followed by the film's most harrowing sequence, in which Cleo goes into labor, and followed by a scene with her at the beach, where the camera tracks alongside her into the sea as she battles ever-higher waves to rescue the children.

    As impressive as all of these sequences are, it's actually the film's quieter moments that strike me as more revolutionary, and more connected to what it's trying to say.  Roma's first scene sees the film's opening credits projected against a close up of the driveway tiles in the family home, as an unseen person, who eventually turns out to be Cleo, sweeps water over them.  As the water piles up, it reflects the sky above the driveway, and eventually a passing airplane.  The contrast between Cleo's humble circumstances and the kind of life she will probably never experience (unless one of the children she cared for becomes a world-famous director, makes a movie in homage to her, and flies her to the premiere) is obvious, but to me what's important about this sequence is the long wait until we get to see the airplane.  It's almost disquieting how long the film makes you wait for anything to focus on in this shot (the audience in my screening seemed positively broken by it) but it also feels like part of the point.  Cleo's life is ruled by mundane, tedious tasks, and the film is going to immerse us in them.

    The next sequence follows Cleo into the house, where she collects the laundry from the family's bedrooms.  The camera follows her for a while, but eventually it situates itself in the middle of the house and makes a 360-degree turn around it.  This not only establishes the film's primary setting--though Cleo leaves the house frequently, for movies with her friends, on vacations with the family, and on her own trip to confront the father of her child, the house is at the core of the film's story--it establishes the confines of Cleo's life.  The driveway that she cleans in the film's opening moments is an image that the film returns to again and again, as people leave the house or enter it.  Later in the movie, we see Cleo clean the driveway again, after Sofia upbraids her for letting the family dog's turds pile up in it.  But every time we see the driveway again after that scene, it's once again littered with excrement.  Because, well, dogs poop.  No matter how many times Cleo cleans the driveway, it'll always get dirty again.

    Which seems to me like the core message of the film's visuals.  Cleo keeps moving in circles.  She cleans the driveway and then it gets soiled again.  She collects the laundry and then it piles up once more.  Even the baby she conceives at the beginning of the movie comes to nothing.  For all the film's forays into striking locations and exciting visual tricks, it's these circles, the repeated return of the camera to where it started, that seem to me to be the most important point it's making.  The film's final shot tracks Cleo as she climbs the steps to the roof of the house to do the laundry.  It's an uplifting image, gazing up at the clear sky that in the opening credits, we saw reflected on the ground.  But doing the laundry is also how Cleo started the film.  For all the upheavals she's experienced, she's still in exactly the same place.

  • It's getting a lot less attention than the visuals, but the film's sound design is also worth highlighting.  And frankly, just the fact that I'm saying this should already tell you something, because if I'm borderline illiterate when it comes to talking about film visuals, I often don't even notice the sound in films (or rather, I notice it, but not in a way that consciously observes the work that went into it and the artistic choices that contribute to the work's effect).  But Roma is a rare case where a film's use of sound registers and enhances the experience of the movie.  The film has no score, and the only sounds in it are diegetic music, ambient nature noises, background conversation, and the regular noises of city life.  While the camera often remains fixed or pans back and forth across a room, the soundscape of the film works overtime to let you what's happening off-screen, in the next room, or outside the house.  The work that the sound designers do to create an aural landscape that immerses you in the setting is brilliant, and makes you feel as if you're in the movie, standing next to the characters and participating in their lives.

    The sound work is, in fact, the main reason why I think the "watch in a movie theater" argument has merit.  Many people have a big TV to watch Netflix on, but few of us have a surround sound system at home, and the experience of watching Roma is absolutely enhanced by the way the film's soundtrack creeps up around you.

  • I've found it fascinating how some of the reviews of the film have leaped directly to reading it as an autobiographical journey through Cuarón's early growth as an artist.  It's not that this isn't an obvious aspect of the film.  Multiple lists have been made of the way that it references Cuarón's filmography (most obviously, a scene in which Cleo accompanies the children to a movie that features astronauts floating towards one another in space).  But it's telling that reviewers can look at a movie about a poor, Native, female domestic worker and see a potted artistic history of their favorite filmmaker.  Particularly since Cuarón himself doesn't make this mistake.  As much of himself and his career as he puts in Roma, it's very clear that he knows it is Cleo's movie.  In fact, while many reviewers have called the film autobiographical, it's notable that Cuarón himself is effectively absent from the movie.  We know that he's one of the children, but there's no way of telling which one.  And while the children are as well-written as any other character in the film, behaving in a believable mix of adorable and bratty, there's never a moment where the film highlights any of them, or gives us any indication that they're going to grow up to become artists.

    There are still questions you could ask about the way Cuarón centers the film on Cleo--the fact that he's telling her story through his own recollection of events could certainly be taken as appropriative, especially given how sensitive some of the material he's depicting is.  But there's never any question that the film is about Cleo, which is one of the many reasons that I was so won over by it.

  • Another thing that's remarkable about Roma is how, for such a personal film that is locked into such a limited point of view, it manages to be fiercely political.  This is seen, most obviously, in the Corpus Christi massacre scene, but signs of political turmoil in 70s Mexico abound throughout the film.  Cleo is told about fellow Native villagers whose lands have been confiscated.  Military parades down the family's quiet residential street punctuate the film's events.  There's even an earthquake that raises questions about the city's preparedness for such a disaster.  I'm sure that, for people who know more about Mexico's history, there are more references that went over my head, but even to an outsider like myself it's remarkable how good Cuarón's script is at conveying a great deal of information about its setting in very few words, and with images seemingly focused on the intensely personal.  When Cleo goes to visit Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), the father of her child, he off-handedly mentions that his martial arts group is being trained by an American.  When he later turns up killing students in the Corpus Christi massacre, it doesn't take much to connect the dots.  The result is a film that effortlessly draws connections between the personal and the political, which seems only appropriate for a story about a Native woman making her way in an enclave of the elite.

3 comments:

Justin said...

Looking forward to seeing this after reading the above and also:
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/theres-a-voice-missing-in-alfonso-cuarons-roma

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's been a lot of criticism of that Richard Brody review, and personally I find it completely wrondheaded. While it's not quite on the level of his tone-deaf review of Wonder Woman (or his most recent "Mrs. Incredible gave me a hard-on" quip) there's a similar sense of faux-wokeness covering for the fact that he fundamentally doesn't know how to write about a movie that centers not only on a woman, but a poor, Native, domestic servant. The things he claims are absent in the movie seem to me to be shining from its every frame. His problem isn't that Cleo is absent from Roma, but that the person he thinks she should be isn't in it.

For a solid counter-point, I recommend this roundup of reflections on the movie, the critical reception to it, and how its unique distribution method has affected its perception. Many of the contributors are Mexican, and they do a good job of placing the film in its cultural context, as well as talking about how it has been received in Mexico.

Justin said...

Ah, thank you for the round up. Reading now (and screening ROMA tonight).

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