Remembrancers as Reconstruction: EXCAVATING MEMORY IN ROMA.
It's a Mm about a family, a city and a country, but ultimately it's about humanity. I wanted to make a film that was both intimate and universal - a film that speaks to everyone. My hope is that, in some way, Roma connects withyou andyourpast, with your memory.
- Alfonso Cuaron'
How equipped is the language of cinema to articulate the nuances of memory? The breadth and scope of accumulated experience, the density of stored images, sensations and sounds? And what of those faltering, timebreached memories that elude capture, and that take on the subtle contours of lived experience as they evolve? This tension between our recollection of the places, people and events that define us and their material reality is at the beguiling heart of Roma (Cuaron, 2018). The film is largely autobiographical: it is shaped by writer/director Cuaron's recollections of his childhood in Mexico City, and in particular of the two women who presided over his formative years - Liboria 'Libo' Rodriguez, a Mixtec woman who worked as his family's live-in maid, and Cristina Orozco, his mother. The film's title refers to Colonia Roma, the neighbourhood of Mexico City where they lived. (2)
The Mexican auteur who gave us the full-voltage 3D multiplex entertainment of Gravity (2013) changes gears here, moving from blockbuster to art film with impressive dexterity. Despite the two films' generic differences, the director's fingerprint is still in evidence in Roma: there is the painstakingly crafted minutiae of an authentically 'lived-in' diegetic world, and there are also the virtuoso technical set pieces, in which the camera floats through time and space, at once distant from and very much a part of the city's aesthetic register. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Roma is a him that tends to resonate just as rousingly with critics as it does with arthouse and mainstream audiences. Interestingly, its distribution schedule reflects this broad-ranging appeal: following a limited theatrical run, it was released on streaming service Netflix. The fallout was thunderous - the Cannes Film Festival's own rules prevented them from screening Roma, (3) bringing the ongoing debate about 'the death of cinema' into sharp focus - but ultimately short-lived, and the decision paid dividends: despite the Cannes snub, Roma went on to become the most awarded film of 2018, winning the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion and the Academy Award for Best Director (among other accolades) and topping the prestigious year-end Sight & Sound poll of critics and curators. (4) Undoubtedly, the film ended up being viewed by a far more diverse audience than a conventional cinematic release would have permitted. The rise of streaming platforms and what it means for the future of cinema is a really vital discussion that far exceeds the scope of this article, but it's worth noting that Cuaron believes that the spaces shouldn't be mutually exclusive. He hopes that 'the combination of the two worlds is going to create something very interesting'. (5)
Roma privileges the perspective of maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) as she dutifully washes, mops, cooks and tends to the children of Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and doctor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). Issues of race, class and gender are filtered through the lens of middle-class family life in 1970s Mexico City; through Cleo, the audience is made painfully aware of the intersectional discrimination that her lowly status confers. Female, poor and indigenous, she is reliant on the family for whom she works for money and shelter; so, while the children might effusively declare their love for her, and cuddle up to her on the settee, it is never too long before she is sent back to the kitchen to bring them more food or drinks. In this way, her every interaction with the family is transactional. As historian Paul Gillingham explains,
The color of your skin determines the size of your bank account, or indeed if you've got a bank account at all. Most of the poorest rural populations in Mexico are also the most indigenous populations. (6)
Beyond the domestic sphere, all of the women in the film are also constrained by the broader framework of a patriarchal society heavy on machismo. Despite their differences of race and class, both Cleo and Sofia occupy uncertain ground as a result of their gender. Both are abandoned by narcissistic and unreliable men: Cleo's lover Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) leaves her after she reveals that she is pregnant, while Antonio deserts Sofia and their children in order to take up with another woman. Sofia recognises their shared circumstances when she says to Cleo, 'No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.' Both Cleo and Sofia must find a way to personally endure, and to remain positive role models for the children in their care.
In many ways, the shifting architecture of this family's foundations, along with their renegotiation of identity, reflects the gradually changing sociopolitical complexion of Mexico. Roma takes place during a time of unrest in the country, when it was becoming clear that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was a barely disguised dictatorship. (7) This family, set adrift by an absent father, offers up a dramatic microcosm for their wider society, within which resistance to the PRI was becoming increasingly visible. Overseas, international civil-rights movements were gaining traction, and this helped to galvanise the Mexican students who came together in protest to demand democracy. While the film quietly alludes to political tensions, this is always off centre stage, behind the scenes. The campaign banners hanging in the background and the overheard arguments about land rights only graze Cleo's awareness.
This all changes when the Corpus Christi Massacre of 10 June 1971 - a dark day in Mexico's history, in which 120 people were killed after a right-wing military group, Los Halcones (literally, 'The Falcons'), was sent in by the government to attack student protesters - violently explodes into frame. (8) The unexpected eruption of such a 'big-canvas' political event punctures the more subdued rhythm of the film, effecting a transition from a state of reverie to the sensorial jolt of a buried memory suddenly emerging from the subconscious. Moments such as these remind us of Soma's status as a kind of material transference of personal, national and even cinematic histories; this is cinema as a living, breathing, sensing memory.
Cuaron's depiction of the massacre is an astonishing sequence that marshals several of the film's central tropes (class, gender, power relations and time), setting them against Mexico's turbulent political landscape. Aesthetically, there is an almost uncanny interplay of 'then' and 'now' as Cuaron draws on the traditions of neorealism while enlisting state-of-the-art digital technology to resurrect (and reposition) his memories. The neorealist emphasis on real locations is here, as is the mix of professional and non-professional actors (remarkably, Cleo is Aparicio's first - and may quite possibly turn out to be her only (9) - acting role). The film was shot with a cutting-edge Alexa 65 camera, and the sound is among the most complex mixes ever created. (10) Here, form and meaning beautifully coalesce to remind us of how, in scholar Isabelle McNeill's words, cinema continues 'to constitute a resource for negotiating and conceiving of the relation between memory, environment and self. (11) In this way, film history intersects with the most contemporary tools of film language, so that it is never clear which temporal mode is 'in charge' of proceedings. This collapsed framework works to orient the spectator within a world of remembrance - there is a sense of the grown-up auteur looking back. The digital black-and-white image is somehow less sentimental than celluloid might have been, and this helps to preserve a position of objectivity in the depiction of relationships and events in Roma. These formal elements support Cuaron's personal memory project:
The only way to approach memory is from the standpoint of the present. Inevitably it's going to be tainted by the prism of present interpretation. Probably, if I had done this at another stage in life, it would have been more nostalgic, romanticised and subjective. I was not interested in that because I wanted to come to terms with my own past, where everything is seen through the very specific character of Cleo. (12)
The result is a throughline of elegant lucidity that frequently emphasises Cleo's 'outsider' status. In a rare inversion of this minority view, the day of the Corpus Christi attacks brings about an ironic subversion of this positioning. The political machinations that are usually a distant murmuring to her become a brutal intrusion when Fermin storms the department store she is browsing with the children's grandmother Teresa (Veronica Garcia). The domestic sphere of the department store is collapsed with that of the middle class, who have the means to purchase the big-ticket items there. Cleo doesn't belong in this space, but is entitled to be there by association with Teresa. Fermi'n's association with the militant attackers underscores his as well as Cleo's class status - both have been neglected by a government that abuses the rights of its poor citizens. Throughout the film, Cleo's oppression is symbolised by the motif of water; here, her waters break after Fermi'n points a gun at her. The diegetic inference is that the trap of poverty is a self-perpetuating cycle that limits choices for women and men alike.
In Roma, it is the sense of the aural that leads the visual, almost as if the hierarchy of the senses has been reshuffled, with sound nudging sight out of position. Unusually for a big-budget Netflix film, there is a complete absence of non-diegetic sound. As a powerfully immediate conduit to memory, sound is the dominant element, vividly establishing atmosphere and diegetic detail. In the abovementioned sequence, the chanting of student protesters dominates the soundscape, again nodding to the neo-realist tradition that depicts the lives of authentic city-dwellers. Inside the store, it is the insistent ticking of a wall of clocks that reminds us of time passing, and of the significance of this particular place and time. The two temporal modes complement each other; this connection between time, memory and the reconstructions of events is made tangible.
Down on the streets, the rhythm of Mexico City merges with the memories of the auteur and the imagined memories of his maid. Teresa and Cleo watch the bloody streetscape from behind a department-store window, but this framing device seems to signify proximity to danger rather than safety. The bourgeois classes can no longer claim that their government is not hostile; they are no longer removed from the threat of danger.
Windows form a recurrent motif in Roma that serves to decentre the action. At the same time, windows locate and contain Cleo as separate from the middle-class world she inhabits. A stationary camera often watches Cleo at work from behind a window: she is visually compartmentalised, sectioned off, removed, yet she is also often the only one doing the active looking: at the children playing outside, at Sofia's stricken face, at hailstones dropping from the sky.
The gentle and utterly winsome presence of Cleo is what anchors Roma. It is that rarest of films: an intimate epic. It manages to be sweeping and elegant, but is not driven by plot or hurried by the artificial beats of 'film time'. It's possible to view Roma as a work of atonement, in which Cuaron evaluates his position of privilege as a boy and reframes it in order to valorise the woman most deserving of recognition. Such recalibration of the past is intoxicating, but also arguably narcissistic, like an old lover wanting to apologise for past wrongs in order that they might free their own conscience. In this way, Roma is a work of deeply personal 'revisionist' cinema that speaks to the heart of the human condition - the importance of love and connection in an uncertain and often unforgiving world. In Cuaron's own words:
There's only one thing that can give meaning to this senseless existence: those bonds of affection. It's as if we live a life of shared loneliness, in which only those bonds can give any comfort. (13)
Gabrielle O'Brien is an award-winning film writer and teacher. She is the recipient of the 2019 Ivan Hutchinson Award for best long-form film writing. She teaches English at Virtual School Victoria.
(1) 'Roma - an Invitation from the Director', Netflix, <https://www.netflix.com/au/title/80240715>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(2) See Kristopher Tapley, Alfonso Cuaron on the Painful and Poetic Backstory Behind Roma', Variety, 23 October 2018, <https://variety.com/20l8/film/news/roma-alfonso-cuaron-r.etflix-libo-rodriguez-l202988695/>; and 'Roma Stars Break Down the Film's Unique Shooting Style', Los Angeles Times, 18 February 2019, <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-en-mn-roma-live-201902l8-story.html>, both accessed 1 October 2019.
(3) See Zack Sharf, 'Alfonso Cuaron at Cannes 2018: Festival "Continuing to Beg" Netflix to Let Roma Premiere', Indie Wire, 13 April 2018, <https://www.indiewire.com/2018/04/alfonso-cuaron-cannes-roma-netflix-ban-l20l952422/>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(4) 'The 40 Best Films of 2018', Sight & Sound, 11 January 2019, <https://www.bfi.org.uk/best-films-20l8>, accessed 4 October 2019.
(5) Louise Tutt, 'Why Alfonso Cuaron Teamed Up with Netflix on Roma', Screen Daily, 11 January 2019, <https://www.screendaily.com/features/why-alfonso-Cuar%C3%B3n-teamed-up-with-netflix-on-roma/5135040.article>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(6) Paul Gillingham, quoted in Alejandro de la Garza, 'The Real History Behind the Movie Roma', Time, 12 February 2019, <https://time.com/5478382/roma-movie-mexican-history/>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(7) Isabel Torrealba, 'The Surprising Piece of Mexican (and American) History at the Center of Roma', Slate, 21 November 2018, <https://slate.com/culture/2018/ll/roma-corpus-christi-student-massacre-el-halconazo.html>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(8) De la Garza, op. cit.
(9) While Aparicio has expressed interest in working as an actor in future, The Washington Post reported in February this year that she has 'not received offers to work in other films'. Javier Cabral, 'Roma Made Yalitza Aparicio a Star. Now She's Giving a Voice to Her Indigenous Fans', The Washington Post, 21 February 2019, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/roma-made-yalitza-aparicio-a-star-now-shes-giving-a-voice-to-her-indigenous-fans/2019/02/2l/d00313da-2ef8-lleg-8l3a-0ab2fl7e305b_story.html>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(10) Michael Ordona, Alfonso Cuaron Reveals the Hidden Layers of Roma', Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2019, <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-mn-alfonso-cuaron-20190130-story.html>, accessed 1 October 2019.
(11) Isabelle McNeill, 'Transitional Spaces: Media, Memory and the City in Contemporary French Film', in Andrew Webber & Emma Wilson (eds), Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis, Wallflower Press, London, 2008, p. 209.
(12) Nick James, 'Where the Heart Is', Sight & Sound, vol. 29, nos 1-2, January/February 2019, p. 58.
(11) Alfonso Cuaron, quoted in Ordona, op. cit.