Movie Review: ROMA, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

“A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.”

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, 1859
Walt Whitman

So, Roma. A two hour and fifteen minute, black and white film that meanders through urban, suburban, and rural Mexico in the 1970’s, by means of a sequence of long takes and ambient sounds. Poetic. Yes? And yet, in its own way, harsh. Relentlessly, with its Whitman-like, neo-realist long takes, and inclusively scanning panoramas, it strips us of all the defense mechanisms so routinely provided by genre films that get us through our fears that we mean little in the grand scheme of things. If you do not already see Hollywood as one immense defense mechanism, please permit me a moment to suggest why Roma makes clear that it is.

Alfonso Cuaron, the writer/director of Roma, has not previously rolled his cameras and sound equipment down this road not taken. Rather, he has built a reputation as an eclectic filmmaker who has helmed a diverse array of generic films: among them, an updated classic melodrama (Great Expectations, 1998), a children’s fantasy (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004), and a dystopian sci-fi (Children of Men, 2006). As a writer, although he has written and directed a comedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001), he tends toward sci-fi marked visibly by generic conventions, for example, Children of Men, Gravity 2013, and a television series called Believe, 2014. Roma, a stunning update of non-generic neo-realist filmmaking, that grows out of his memory of his childhood nanny, marks a significant departure. And not only for Cuaron. You can count on one hand, maybe one finger, the number of neo-realist blockbusters. But blockbuster Roma is. It has rocked the international awards scene.

And yet. Uneasy anecdotal comments have reached me from both the cinema savvy and the pass the popcorn crowd, indicating that Cuaron’s free form narrative has puzzled more of its audience than might want to admit to confusion about it. I was bemused by a capsule verbal review of Roma by an acquaintance, who said to me in confidence that she experienced the film as boring: it began, it went on, and then it ended, and nothing happened. She said. While I take extreme issue with her characterization of the film as “boring,” to a certain extent, it is hard to disagree with the rest of her characterization of its flow of events. But with all my shaken heart I embrace Cuaron’s atypical disregard for Wagnerian music, in your face visuals, large quests, intense moments, well-defined purposes, and conclusive outcomes.

Roma’s events are filtered through the foregrounded upstairs/downstairs lives of a comfortable Mexican family, the last name of which we are not told, and their two servants, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia). This domestic establishment, situated in the Roma section of Mexico City, includes Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the patriarch; Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother; Teresa (Veronica Garcia), Sofia’s mother; their four children; and Borras, the family dog. As Roma unfolds, Antonio, whom we only briefly glimpse, abandons his family to live with his mistress, unceremoniously taking whatever he wants from the family home; Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) abandons Cleo, leaving her pregnant; and Mexico City is torn apart by student uprisings, police repression, and looting. But that’s not all. The estate of family friends to which Sofia takes Cleo and the four children on vacation experiences a dangerous fire; Cleo’s baby is born dead; and on another family trip to a beach Cleo saves two of the children from drowning in some riptide waves.

Nothing happens in this film? Well, not in the sense in which entertainment usually makes meaning. It is only watching a work like Roma that we become aware of what filmmakers routinely do to make us experience a sense of an eventful story. To quote my always perceptive colleague Joseph Kickasola (Baylor University), from a review published in Church Life Journal, these intense moments of life and death in Roma are not framed through “narrative foreshadowing or deliberate, tension-building ramps of emotion.” And that makes all the difference. Roma is what happens to storytelling when we are not manipulated by those rhetorical structures into believing in the importance and immensity of events. Roma makes clear that stripped of these directorial and writerly prompts, even moments of life and death barely seem to have occurred. Rather, they virtually float past the camera eye and the eyes of the audience.

Trials by fire and water are not framed in Roma by an insistence, through the hyperbolic conventions of melodrama, on the way they inflict enduring trauma. Although Cuaron borrows from the traditions of neo-realism–the long take, the use of non-professional actors in crucial roles, and a verite approach to action and cinematography—for the most part, he eschews presentation of the betrayals of Cleo and the mother and children in the family she works for by means of the high melodrama favored by the great neo-realist Italian masters. Recall the wrenching story in Umberto D (Vittorio DeSica, 1952), in which De Sica radically contrasts the aging Umberto’s (Carlo Battisti) destitution with the affluence of the still dominant Nazi middle class in charge of society after the fall of Mussolini. The audience is drawn into Umberto’s suffering as a supreme, and sublime cosmic event through De Sica’s calculated management of tension generated by the perversion of the moral hierarchy by greed of the upper classes. Once seen, the moment when Umberto is so wracked by despair that he attempts suicide and his little dog Flike refuses to collaborate with him, haunts the imagination forever. It is the melodrama that makes Flike into an intensely personified presence, and the foreshadowing and the tension building that make the suicide attempt explode off the screen and sear the observer’s mind. I write this with the tears in my eyes I can never prevent when I recall De Sica’s masterpiece.

By contrast, there is no such melodrama in Roma. The family dog, Borras, is no Flike. He is always threatening to run out of the family enclosure to certain danger in the streets, but he doesn’t, and he never stokes any melodrama about cosmic suffering in Sofia’s family, or of Cleo’s loss of her little girl. Rather he is just a dog, a creature filled with the sheer joy of his animal spirits. And although life and death continually hang in the balance in the lives of the characters in Roma, the absence of melodrama and conventional narrative rhetoric make it absolutely believable that a spectator might emerge from the film saying that nothing happened—an impossibility in Umberto D. In relaxing the grip of classical neo-realist rhetoric on the audience’s intestines and souls, however, Cuaron catapults us into an equally, if not more, destabilizing perspective.

The very ephemeral nature of moments in which life and death come to a head unweaves the old neo-realist assurances of the powerful weightiness of the least of us. Rather, Cuaron distances us from any pretensions to human importance as he opens the door to his vision of how fleeting, brief, and weightless human life is. This is a realism that is harsh medicine to the individualist American and to all cultures that are Americanized. But it is a neo-realist perspective that serves as a tonic to the narcissism encouraged by the excesses of modern individualism. And it engages us in a rare and delicate way. In closing one door on narrative melodrama and mannered rhetoric, it opens another to us. In refusing the melodramatic ploy of collapsing the audience’s distance from the character so that we can feel his/her importance as ours, it frees us for a different kind of consolation, a spectatorial distance that frees us for the courage to accept the transience of life.

The film begins with a radically collapsed cinematic distance. We are confronted by the almost silent image of a solid tile surface marked with a diamond design that is subsequently flooded with soapy water. Virtually embedded in this image, we see nothing beyond its impenetrable presence. We are too close. What is this surface? Where is it? What is the source of the water and why is it flowing over the tile? Proximity is a problem. Yes, this is a fascinating image. As the water ebbs and flows over the tile it partially turns the surface partially into a mirror, reflecting a fragment of some kind of architecture and the sky, which is traversed by an airplane that is so small in dimension that it seems a premonition that there is distance as well as proximity in this world. Nevertheless the impossibility of determining whether what we are looking at is up or down in space limits us. Is this a floor or a wall? It is only when the camera pulls back from the tile surface that we begin to gain the larger picture and knowledge. It is a floor and the woman whom we will come to know as Cleo, the central character in the film–though a servant to the family that employs her–is washing the floor. This narrative flow from collapsed distance to larger perspective is paradigmatic of all the follows. Everything that pulls us up close and personally into the frame ultimately fades from it, leaving, at the most, only traces that it was ever there. And leaving the audience with a less human-centric, larger vision of existence.

So it is with the terrible moments of civic strife, emotional despair, fire and oceanic tides; as well as with the moments of joy, when children play, people dance, enjoy love, comfort each other, eat; and the prosaic moments when people return home from shopping, prepare food, straighten up or mess up the family living space. Consider the fleeting presence of the patriarch Antonio. Eagerly awaited when he returns home from work in the beginning of the film, he is very much a cozy physical presence while the family cuddles together watching television–until he isn’t anymore. There is no prefiguration that he will disappear, no buildup of suspense about his imminent flight from the scene; nor is there a rhetoric of surprise when he disappears. Unframed by these narrative devices, the pain of his absence blossoms and dissolves ultimately like the image on the television set once it is turned off. Unlike the fictions that build into them the wounding tragedy of the disappearance from our lives of parents and other loved ones, Roma deflates their importance. This is also true of Sofia’s visit to a big estate with Cleo and the children. The visit is a moment-to-moment succession of dancing, eating, happy people, and suddenly frightening fire. The conflagration emerges from nowhere and after a cut to morning has burned out. The day after the fire, the great numbers of children on the estate, visitors and children who live there, joyously run wild with farm and domestic animals. The camera maintains a physical distance in these and most other moments in the film, often so that you can barely see the characters, let alone experience them as significant points of identification. It is as though the camera were letting go of them as they are being visualized.

Three important exceptions are the still birth of Cleo’s baby; the near death experience of two family children at the beach; and Cleo herself. And they are the exceptions that prove the rule. There is prefiguration and the deliberate building of tension and suspense about the birth. It is the only event we anticipate throughout the film. The birth is fraught with dark intimations. First, there is the question of whether Cleo will be humiliated and cast off by the family once she is abandoned by Fermin, her cowardly, callow boyfriend. Then there is Cleo’s attempt to reach out to Fermin at his martial arts training center, even though he has made it clear that he feels no connection to her and the child. The threat of violence and humiliation hangs over her meeting with him as he defensively threatens to kill her and the child if she doesn’t leave him alone that bleeds into the day Cleo gives birth. Cleo’s water breaks on the day when Mexico City erupts with battles between protesters and police, choking traffic and creating the possibility that she will not get to the hospital on time Indeed, as Cleo is carefully shepherded by concerned people, including Sofia’s mother, Teresa, through the streets filled with fleeing, screaming—and dying–people, Fermin suddenly appears in front of her, gun in hand, as a government sponsored provocateur, a thug hired to disrupt the peaceful protest. There is a melodramatic moment of fear that he will fire on her, but it dissipates, to be replaced by a new fear. When Cleo, an unwed, poor woman arrives at the hospital, will the medical personnel, treat her with disdain, cause her humiliation, or refuse to treat her because she doesn’t have medical insurance? This too vanishes abruptly.

What could have been dramatized as part of an irrevocable class war is transmuted into the helpless concern of Cleo’s employers and the clinical distance of the medical personnel. The dehumanized class cruelty in Umberto D is not a part of this scene. Rather Cuaron emphasizes the deflation of the event of birth by emotionally detached medical personnel. An orderly cannot hear a fetal heartbeat, and takes no care not to alarm Cleo when he tells the doctor, and when the baby girl is born dead the expression of sorrow in the delivery room is rendered hollow as the sad little corpse is “processed,” in the words of the attending physician. All the same, this chain of events is much more reminiscent of conventional movie narrative than anything else in the film, especially when the camera comes in very close on Cleo’s fear-filled trip to the hospital, and her anguish as she (and we) sees the dead baby pulled from her body and splayed on a hospital gurney parallel with hers. The conventional depiction of importance and intensity rises to a crescendo, approaching the melodramatic pathos of the great De Sica and threatening to invalidate the portrait life established by the preceding scenes in the film. But no. Its very seeming importance supports the through line of life made up of appearing and disappearing events and people. We are forced to witness the way that even this, this stunningly overwhelming moment of birth and death, this draining, heart breaking moment is figuratively washed away by time, and literally in a penultimate scene on a beach when Sofia, the children, and Cleo take yet another road trip. Even this.

In a subsequent scene at the beach, which is again about life and death and seemingly structured in a typical way, there is a climactic washing away of the individualist, arguably narcissistic, conventions of movie storytelling. First the dialogue establishes that Cleo cannot swim, and then we see the children recklessly playing in the water, and a familiar narrative tension begins to build about Cleo, the ocean, and the children. We’ve seen enough movies to know that trouble is brewing, and possibly we are in for more dead children, when Sofia has to take one of her sons to the bathroom and leaves non-swimmer Cleo in charge with the other three, warning her rambunctious little ones to “stay near the shore.” Our fears seem to be confirmed when, as Cleo is towel drying one of the children on the sand, reminding the other two in the water of their mother’s words, the untended children disappear into the ocean. All we can see are the wild waves of water. The narrative training we have received from conventional films is in play as Cleo tells the safe child to stay where he is and at first hesitantly and then with intent sets off to save his siblings.

The waves are enormous, the undertow is powerful, Cleo and the children are very small. There is indeed melodramatic suspense here. And there is triumph and all the familiar movie satisfactions of heroism and triumph over death when Cleo, with no thought for her own safety, leads the children out of the water, and in a moment that in a conventional blockbuster would bring the story to a triumphant conclusion, she, Sofia and the children all cling together, a family still intact. This frame, has, indeed, been used by the marketers as the iconic image of the film. But the marketers cling to old narrative conventions that are at loggerheads with Curaron’s vision. This is neither the climactic nor the final image of the film. (How can you have a climactic image when there is no rising and falling plot arc?)

We take leave Cleo and the family in their home only after they have returned from the beach to ordinary hum drum life. The rooms are now stripped of the bookcases by Antonio who has left piles of books on the floor, a trace that he was once there. But neither Antonio, nor the life and death beach agony has survived except in unimportant memory markers. All intensity dissipates in these final frames. The children are preoccupied acclimating themselves excitedly to the new developments that have taken place in their house, and the “great rescue” becomes a one line anecdote that Cleo shrugs off and then moves on to non-dramatic household chores. Ultimately, the family disappears as we follow Cleo, who is carrying bundles of linen. And then she too disappears. And we are left with a revised version of the first image. We see what we initially saw indirectly reflected in the water on the floor, the architecture of the family home and the sky in which a tiny image of an airplane is visible, but now we see it directly. After our journey in this film, we now have the proper distance that bespeaks the fluidity of life from which no one and nothing is immune, not even Cleo to whom we have become closer than to any other character in the film.

Indeed, it is her disappearance that defines her centrality in Cuaron’s film. The need for us to be close to her and then let her go is what most powerfully defines the experience Cuaron has created for us. Cleo is the main character in Roma, not because she performs the usual heroics, makes time stand still, commands the camera and coincidentally creates the illusion of our own importance, as our movies tend to do. Rather she is central because she does not. The way life runs through her, the way she releases people and events as time flows by is Cuaron’s model for human grace under pressure. She contrasts with Sofia’s initial reaction to being abandoned by Antonio, which bears some resemblance to losing a possession and the tantrum of a child. Cleo, on the other hand, bears witness to Fermin’s impossibility as a father with no hysterics. And Cleo’s innate, understated power is contrasted with Fermin’s macho, ludicrous, arrogant display of himself as a hotshot martial arts fighter. In a post-coital scene, early in the film, naked, Fermin performs some martial arts movements, his genitals flapping about. Intended as a victory lap, it comes off as a pathetic, pointless assertion of his manhood. By contrast, when Cleo comes to find him at his training camp, the martial arts master assumes a simple looking balance posture and invites his students and all onlookers to try it. They all fail miserably, except Cleo. She effortlessly attains the posture, with no fanfare, unnoticed, a true center of human poise that sustains balance with the same ease that she engages and releases life.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote of the anguish of the fleeting life that he perceived as a groundless, insubstantial dream. He wrote of the agonizing experience of the sands of life slipping through his fingers. He was an outsider in his time but arguably he speaks for the majority of modern people who flock to Hollywood’s illusory tales of triumph and magnified importance to escape that very fear. Cuaron, by contrast, taps into an entirely different poetic by envisioning through Cleo a Whitmanian amplitude and a pleasure taken in the unbearable lightness of being; the cradle endlessly rocking producing life, and letting it slip through our fingers without indelible fear or anxiety. Might that be the reason the film is titled Roma, for the geographical location rather than Cleo, even though his cinematic poem depends so heavily on her and her courage, more courage than I, steeped in the existential terror of Poe, can muster, can only imagine courtesy of Cuaron?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roma was selected as AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for January 25, 2019 and was honored by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists with 2018 EDA Awards for Best Film, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, Best Cinematographer for Alfonso Cuaron.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
explore: | | | | | |