Watching Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, one gets the feeling that they have bumped into a literal wall. For it is a tale from the perspective of Cleo Gutierez (debutant Yalitza Aparicio), the maidservant of the household. But does it tell Cleo’s story? This is what has been the most challenging for this. Because answering this question risks falling into the pitfalls of shallow reading of the film- of anger at the supposed muting of the subaltern and of eliding over the thorny points and thus making it yet another exercise of back-slapping a privileged intellectual. A very simple question can balance all this though – where is the anger, or any emotion for that matter, in a film set in 1971 Mexico? Love is too suspect a stance to be attributed to the dispossessed, for better or worse. Cuaron said in an interview that he just wanted to tell a story. Ah.
In the midst of all this, only Cleo’s ability to do a particular yogic pose demonstrated by a Right-backed maverick which is meant to demonstrate extraordinary spiritual progress is almost atrocious, coming from Cuaron that it is. An unnecessary, and in fact, damaging detail. Also, it must be mentioned right at the outset that Roma is Cuaron’s in every way- production, cinematography, editing, writing, direction..Speaking of details, the tableau staging with the careful attention to the tiniest of things might seem contradictory to the fact that this film is supposed to be an ode to the director’s nanny. In terms of execution and cinematography, it is close to flawless. If there is one place where the director doesn’t hold back, it is the cinematography, which does all the speaking. The execution is very sure.
But isn’t memory unsure? Well, this might be explained by the director’s adopting a wide-angle, panoramic style of shooting which imparts an epic scale to everyday events like cleaning a mouthpiece or hanging clothes. They become spectacular. After all, when we are children, everything is alive and too big for us. Somewhere in there, there is an awestruck child looking askance at even dog turd. This contrasts beautifully with the close-ups used to convey intimacy, the detailing of emotions on the faces and the gestures – Cleo registering Fermin’s virulent masculinity but choosing to ignore it for hope that is ultimately lost. The logic is simple after all.
The interplay of hope and disappointment is something that is well conveyed. It reaches a crescendo when Cleo breaks water while two other women scream for their lost men. Which is all the more why the working class silence is so jarring when juxtaposed with the student rebellion horror? Which might as well lead us to suspect that there might be some sort of intellectual catharsis in part of the director while portraying the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, forming the backdrop for a crucial turn of events in the film, and shot so brilliantly.
For we never know what Cleo’s relation to the society is. Her mother loses land, and she is afraid to turn up there in her pregnant state. Is that it? Isn’t there any grief, or anger, or even happiness for that matter, in her at having lost a place she had grown up in? That thread is abruptly cut. Ideally, the maids should have gossiped in the kitchen. Nobody gossips about their masters even when they are drunk and dancing ‘below stairs’. While watching the movie for the very first time, one expects the maids to break out into at least some casual bitching while they are in the kitchen working, or going to sleep together, or eating with the driver. But they don’t. Why?
There is sparse dialogue really, and Cleo speaks the least among the significant characters. Could it be that the director doesn’t want to assume a voice on her behalf? And makes the youngest child ask instead toward the end whether Cleo is dumb or not? That her voice is not expected and that portrayal itself is supposed to speak volumes? But is that enough? Especially when we hear Cleo breaking down at the end that she never wanted the child, how can we excuse the absence of an inkling of that dislike in the entire length of the movie? This is all the more unpardonable when there is as minute a detailing as a blond white woman elegantly dressed and drinking from her glass while watching the forests burning, probably set on fire by dissenting farmers who have been deprived of their land by her kind.
There is genuine feminism in this movie though, regardless. With Roma, you cannot accuse Cuaron of tokenism or pandering to the flavor of the season. There is a lot of passion and motivation which shows in the execution. He is shirking completely from depicting structural violence- Cleo is often at the receiving end of anger emanating from the father figure Antonio, who gets a fair amount of layering even for his remaining at the periphery of the tale. For Cuaron does try. But somehow, it is not enough. For instance, it would have been interesting to come up with an alternative to the white mistress articulating the ultimate loneliness of women to Cleo, whose passivity can get irritating even for feminists who are not urban, college-educated, social media savvy with a repertoire of words at their command. Don’t poor people react?
Or the repeated, reinforced stoicism an attempt on the director’s part to run away from the guilt that he too had been complicit in everything in his own way? A fastidious holding on to a memory where everything was hunky-dory with this woman who meant everything to him? Shot in Neo-realist black and white, the film opens with an omniscient narrator in the background, somewhat like Y Tu Mama Tambien. She may be reminding you yet again that this is just a story, but that and all the lack of some obvious emotions at very obvious places, coupled with the long shots as a result of very less editing may make the 2+ hours film slightly tedious for audiences who have no reason to be overwhelmed by an Oscar-winning mainstream Hollywood director for coming up with a film where a WASP is not at the centre stage.