A review on Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuaron

By: Masood Sabet

“…The whole world had one language… they said to each other, ‘come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly… come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.’ …the Lord said: ‘If as one people, speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand each other.”

Genesis 11

Since time immemorial, or more accurately, the Cognitive Revolution, the man has been perpetuating a futile crusade against the highly insecure Lord of the old testament, to bring people back together and resume the construction of the Babylon Tower, to reach for the heavens, to become god. The search for the Eutopia has given birth to myriad ideologies, religions, creeds and philosophies, all seeking a common ground, an all-encompassing tenet. The question still stands: what brings people together? A shared belief? A common social class? Mutual interests and concerns? Speaking the same language? Maybe each to some extent, but all such imaginary and subjective ideas have proven to be transient and volatile. As a sentient species, the man in his core, under all the trappings of civilization and its implications, still finds the strongest and most enduring bonds in a shared suffering and pain. Roma is the story of two women, Cleo and Sofia, who form a tacit alliance to get them through a difficult patch and eventually guide them to their redemption, in a patriarchic society, transitioning into modernity and facing the consequent struggles and clashes, Mexico City in the early 1970s.

The propagated image of a happy family, a cartoonish order which is to be disrupted

Roma has a conventional three-act screenplay, with Cleo in the centre and two main sub-stories: Sofia’s struggle to survive without Antonio, while some atrocities of the infamous “Mexican Dirty War”[i] is being unfolded in the background. The struggle in the political and social scene is ubiquitous, and a nation is being born anew amid this exhaustive turbulence. Cleo is a servant to an affluent family, comprised of the patriarch (Antonio, a doctor), his wife Sofia, and their four young children. The conspicuously novel visual style of Roma is evident from the first scene. During the whole intro, the camera is looking down on the pavement, then it tilts up as if rising from the dead. Cuaron’s realistic mise-en-shot has presented itself in the form of consecutive smooth pans to the left and right, and only occasional tilts and dollies. When introducing the main characters, the patriarch comes in last. It’s the end of the day and father has returned home. A huge Ford Galaxy pulls up on the driveway and the incessant sound of the horn calls upon the servants to open the gate for his majesty. The camera takes us inside the car with rare formalistic close shots and editing. The scene is inconsistent with the predominant visual form, probably indicative of a character incongruous with the world of the narrative, who must leave. We don’t see his face yet. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is playing on the radio like a fanfare fit for a king, a hand holding a lit cigarette puts the gear in drive and the car slowly moves forward into the narrow garage, which can hardly contain the big car. Sofia and the children have already formed a welcoming committee at the door. The car’s headlights drench their smiling faces in a white glow and depicts the stereotype of a happy middle-class family as propagated by American advertising companies in the 60s and 70s. This cartoonish order is to be disrupted by crises which encumber the lives of the two female protagonists and test their strength and endurance. But for each other’s help and support, neither would succeed. Cleo gets pregnant and Sofia is abandoned with four young children. It takes them both a while to find their feet in this daunting new world.

The patriarch arrives in an iconic scene, inconsistent with the predominant form, indicative of an incongruous character

If a coffee psychic saw an airplane in your cup, she’d probably tell you that you’d have a journey up ahead. At the beginning of the film, the reflection of a flying plane on the wet ground is indicative of a dream and an inner journey for Cleo. She’s a lousy maid; sloppy and heedless. The ever-present dogshit and urine stains in the garage constantly signals her utter disinterest in what she does for a living. But she is a mere village girl, an underdog in a constant struggle for survival, with no prospects and nothing on the horizon. Dream is a luxury she can’t afford. Even if she has one, it is shattered by a cruel and unfair reality, analogous to the reflection of a flying plane in the blue sky, frequently disturbed by cascades of foam and dirt.

Cleo’s baby is conceived in a hired room. After which Fermin puts on a martial arts performance for her, using the shower curtain rod for a sword. He’s completely naked, reminiscent of a primate with a simple tool, a crude masculinity as an archetypal attribute. Fermin is the materialization of what Carl G. Jung would call the first level of Cleo’s Animus’s development, “a personification of mere physical power, an athletic champion or muscle man”.[ii] Cleo’s is a lowlife, a hired thug. She needs to grow past this primitive level, but this is so far-fetched of a dream for a “fucking servant”.

Antonio goes to Quebec for a conference. While leaving, he steps on dogshit and surprisingly doesn’t seem to mind at all. Sofia could have probably guessed that no conference would be so exciting to deserve such eagerness. Shortly after, it transpires that the conference was only a scam for the doctor to run away to Acapulco with his mistress. Cleo and Sofia’s first response to their crises, like a natural reaction, is to try and appeal to their men in the hope to soften their hearts and bring them back. Cleo finds Fermin on a bare field somewhere outside the city. He’s practicing martial arts with tens of his gangmates. It’s such a spectacle and a bunch of people are watching. They are training, as Fermin puts it, for “something like the Olympics”, which refers to the Corpus Christi Massacre in Mexico City on 10th of June 1971. Their group is a government-trained paramilitary group known as Los Halcones (The Falcons). A popular celebrity is there to keep the gang motivated for the important upcoming mission. Professor Zovek is a TV personality, whom we have earlier seen on TV in the bar where Cleo and Adela meet their dates. Here comes a nudge to the right direction for Cleo. At the end of the training, Zovek lectures the crowd on how to train minds. Subsequently, he performs an act, which he claims requires total physical and mental focus, and only Lamas, martial arts masters and a few great athletes could do. It’s an awe-inspiring scene; Zovek, blindfolded, stands on one leg, with her palms touching above his head. The sun is blazing in the background and a plane is crossing the clear blue sky. It’s not a reflection in a pond of dirt anymore. It’s come above the ground. The trainees and onlookers alike try to imitate the move, but all in vain. Among all the stumbling and buckling figures is Cleo, on one leg, with her eyes closed, and steady as a rock. Now it’s Lamas, martial arts masters, a few great athletes, and Cleo! This experience would come handy for her, when later struggling with her inner demons.

Contrasting two different worlds through a juxtaposition of two hair and skin coulous

In a pivotal scene of the iconic movie of The Matrix (1999), agent Smith says to Morpheus: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered… it was a disaster. No one would accept the programme. Entire crops were lost… I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.” When Sofia first realizes that Antonio was unlikely to come back, she asks the children to write a letter to their father and remind him how much they love him, in the hope that this last resort would do the trick. She’s devastated and desperate. Hadn’t it been for the matriarch’s suffering of the same kind, a pregnant Cleo would have been immediately sent back to her village. It would never be reasonable to keep her. But “pain doesn’t listen to reason. It has its own reason, which is not reasonable.”[iii] Sometimes an atrocity for the upper-class is a blessing for the lower. On the other hand, suffering of the lower could translate to prosperity of the upper. Isn’t that what Marx calls Class Conflict, which drives societal change? But this is obviously not a case of social conflict. On the contrary, their resonating sufferings drive them towards a mutual objective: redefine themselves as women without men.

In an early scene, Cleo and one of the boys are on the roof, lying on their back, head to head, like two opposing arrows. There’s also an apparent juxtaposition of two different hair and skin colour. They are playing dead. Cleo seizes the opportunity to rest her eyes a bit. “I like being dead.” She says. Death is her nirvana. Later in the hospital, Cleo, four-month pregnant, is watching the newborns behind a big window. All of a sudden, everything starts shaking. It’s an earthquake, and a powerful one (most probably a fictional event, since there’s no record of any significant earthquake in Mexico City in 1971). Everyone is frightened; some run away, and some kneel to pray. But Cleo, as if in a trance, stands still, hoping to embrace death as the only plausible way out of an ominous fate for herself, and a predetermined miserable life for the baby inside of her. The cross of suffering she’s carrying is not leading her to her salvation on Golgotha. A more accurate analogy for her is Sisyphus and his boulder. She wants to break this hopeless cycle; she wants a way out. She wants to die. In the end, it’s the same dark force which propels her towards the gushing waves. She has the same look and determination, looking straight forward like a sleepwalker, as if called upon by a heavenly voice up ahead in the ocean.

Cleo’s subtle yet victorious smile after a long and excruciating battle with guilt

Besides Cuaron’s masterful directing through the entire work, there’s one particular scene which epitomizes his artisanship; a deep focus photography with a twist. Cleo’s baby is born dead, and they let her hold her for a last goodbye. A formidable shot perfectly conveys the anguish. While you cannot take your eyes off the baby being wrapped up on a table in the background, the camera insists we keep our “focus” on Cleo and her chaotic inner world. The baby is dead, but a monster in being born inside of her: Guilt. A few hours earlier, in the store, Cleo sees Fermin again, with the same clothes, another emphasis on the archetypal quality of the character. He’s pointing a gun to her swollen belly, while his gang are murdering students in broad daylight. Cleo’s water breaks, as though Fermin has pulled the trigger, and this is blood dripping off of her on the ground. The fear and hatred that she feels towards Fermin finally trumps her maternal instincts. But such a stigma takes an extraordinary courage to admit. There in the hospital, the baby being prepared on a deeper plane out of focus, the real crisis is looming over Cleo’s mind. Now her enormous hatred for Fermin is metamorphosing into self-hatred. The only way to redeem herself from this excruciating pain and unbearable burden of guilt is to make a great sacrifice. In the climax of the film, she throws herself into the ocean and miraculously manages to save the children. She steps on the shore, as if redeemed by John the Baptist, and finally utters: “I didn’t want her to be born.” Later in the car, returning home, that subtle smile on her face implicates an inner peace after a long devastating battle with her demons.

With the climatic incident comes Sofia’s growth too. She’s sold the giant Galaxy and bought a small Renault, one that could conveniently fit in the garage. Antonio is not coming back. She takes her children along with Cleo on a two-day trip to the ocean, so he could come and take his belongings, mostly bookcases, and not the books. The source of knowledge, enlightenment and power for the modern woman stays. Cleo saving the children is the last leg of Sofia’s inner journey. They return home. It looks different and a new order has been established. Cleo goes back to her daily chores. In the last scene, she’s ascending to the roof with a basket of laundry, an airplane is flying in the distance, this time well high up in the blue sky. She’s still a servant, but she’s bestowed the privilege to have a dream.

[i] An internal conflict between the Mexican PRI-ruled government, backed by the US, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s under the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo.

[ii] M.L. Von Franz, ‘The Process of Individuation’ in Carl Jung ed., Man and His Symbols (London 1978) P. 205-6

[iii] Kundera, Milan, Identity (Faber & Faber, London, 1999) P.118

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