Dossier

Roma: Silence, Language, and the Ambiguous Power of Affect

Carla Marcantonio

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2019, Volume 72, Number 4

Where does one begin to write about Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) in the aftermath of its triple Oscar success? Of course, to even note that this film is an Oscar winner barely begins to describe the stunning phenomenon that it has been. Netflix has forever changed its own strategy around how it markets and promotes its movies. Its Roma release radically alters the world of the movie business and the public’s expectations of what kinds of films might triumph on digital platforms or during the awards season. That’s an epic story that cannot be written yet. Its status as a watershed moment in film history will need to be written later, with the benefit of hindsight.

Netflix led an ambitious Oscar campaign that seemed to spare no expense.1 Its advertising, press interviews with the “talent,” multiple screenings and Q&As, special events held for Oscar voters including “tastemaker” lunches hosted by A-list celebrities, and photo shoots for nearly every leading magazine that covers culture and entertainment were omnipresent. And, as ubiquitous as images of Roma seemed to be, the same was true of images of its lead protagonist, Yalitza Aparicio, an Indigenous Mexican woman and preschool teacher who had never intended to pursue acting. Roma was her acting debut. Her rise to fame was in itself a phenomenon to witness, particularly in her native Mexico, where her presence in the highest echelons of the global entertainment industry unleashed racist vitriol and sparked heated debates regarding the representation of Indigenous people in Mexico (and abroad).2

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf01

Yalitza Aparicio at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony.

Over the course of several months, I had the good fortune to serve as Yalitza Aparicio’s interpreter in Los Angeles. The experience left me interested in thinking about which discourses coalesced around the film and which didn’t, and in some cases, how people’s responses to the film were contradictory and at times didn’t seem to take into account the film itself.

I’d like to start with an example of an exchange that occurred at a Q&A session.3 Screenings are not usually driven by a topic, yet one “social impact” screening of Roma included a panel comprising the film’s two Oscar-nominated actors, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, along with Monica Ramirez, the director of the Gender Justice Campaigns for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).4 In fact, the direct alliance that the Roma team (including Cuarón) forged with the NDWA is among the more interesting developments to emerge from the constellation of sociopolitical discourses that the film has sparked.5 This collaboration was sponsored by Participant Media as part of its self-professed commitment to producing entertainment with socially relevant themes and its savvy use of marketing to “sell” social justice platforms to the public; the fact that Participant Media produced the film is often lost in the fray surrounding Netflix and its distribution of the film. This “social impact” panel was moderated by Nely Galán, former president of Entertainment at Telemundo and an independent producer, author, and women’s empowerment advocate.

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf02

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, left) and Sofía’s (Marina de Tavira, right) parallel struggles and quiet solidarity. Courtesy of Carlos Somonte/Netflix.

The topic of this particular Q&A revolved generally around the casting and filmmaking process and focused on the relationship between the two women in the film, Cleo and Sofía (Tavira)—specifically, their parallel struggles in their relationships with men and the quiet solidarity that develops between them, a topic that had also emerged as a dominant theme in various other Q&As. Yet, I was most struck by the first question from the audience, which instead raised topics about which there had been little mention. An Indigenous woman rose and addressed Ms. Aparicio directly in Mixtec, then translated her greeting into Spanish and continued in Spanish. She wanted to know how Ms. Aparicio felt about shooting the scene in the furniture store, where pregnant Cleo’s water breaks in the midst of a student protest just outside the window. She noted that Ms. Aparicio herself pursued her studies to become an educator at a normalista school in Oaxaca, the same state that most recently witnessed the disappearance of forty-three students, also from an escuela normal.6

I was impacted by how the question brought attention to a dominant vein in the film that has mostly been left unaddressed, at least in conversations about the film in the United States. Ms. Aparicio answered by first clarifying that she herself does not speak Mixtec but that the other Indigenous actor in the film, Nancy García, was her language coach. Then she revealed that the meaning of the students protesting outside the furniture store was not lost on her and that she found it quite affecting. She recounted how people often ask her why Cuarón added “fictional flourishes” of the student protest to the film and that she inevitably has to explain that these elements are not fictional. She added that the lack of knowledge surrounding this history (the film depicts the events of the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971) demonstrates how important it is to study and keep history alive, lest events like this, which have left deep wounds in the social and political fabric of the country, be forgotten.

At that point, a stark contrast became evident between the politically overt content of the film and the prominent topic of numerous Q&As—especially those with only women present—regarding the bond between women and the mothering role that Cleo plays within Sofía’s family. The film’s political context was barely touched upon during most Q&As that I attended and has been only cursorily touched upon in the larger critical discourse. Yet the scene in question is perhaps key to understanding how intrinsically the politics of motherhood are interwoven with the political “backdrop” of the film and why the film is ultimately a more complex visual testament than a mere register of the director’s memories could convey.

Memory, as Aparicio frequently stated, is fragile and can be malleable. Cuarón himself has said in numerous Q&A sessions that the script was a melding of his memories and those of Libo, the Indigenous woman who helped raise him. He also concedes that he could only be writing those memories from the place of the present and that, as such, it would need to be recognized that the overt political context does not belong to his ten-year-old self. In fact, he often also underlined that he chose to use black and white in such a way as to avoid endowing the film with a patina of nostalgia—with no “graininess” added to its quite contemporary images shot on an ALEXA 65 digital camera. Cuarón was interested not only in his memory of a time period that formed him, but also in the events that transpired during that time, which were to reshape his country.7

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf03

Roma’s depiction of the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971.

In the scene in question, Cleo arrives at the furniture store accompanied by Sofía’s mother so that she may select a crib for her baby. The cause-and-effect logic of the sequence pins the blame for her water breaking not merely on the shock of seeing the violence erupt outside, but on suddenly finding herself held at gunpoint by Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), her unborn baby’s father. This scene is significant because it clearly fuses the personal with the political and demonstrates their inextricability. The activities outside the furniture store have a causal relationship to those transpiring inside, and that implied causality builds a thematic connection: absent and violent patriarchs are to blame for the disintegration of the nuclear family, while failed and violent patriarchal institutions are responsible for the massacre of a nation’s young citizens. Cleo’s impending nonviable parturition crystalizes the connection, implying that the nuclear family and the national family have both undergone a stillbirth. Indeed, the connection the film offers to present-day violence in Mexico was not lost on the audience member who posed the initial question: Cuarón’s film is saying a great deal about Mexico’s present while re-creating its past. In particular, the film quietly proposes that one of the legacies of the 1970s period is the path on which it set Mexico: toward a violent present and a potentially still unviable future.

Roma is thus a film that speaks volumes not just about matriarchy, as so overly emphasized in media coverage of the film, but also about patriarchy—and the lingering effects of absent paternal figures, represented mostly in the personal and private realm of the family but suggestive of an ailment plaguing Mexican society as a whole, regardless of social class.

One of my favorite shots in the film is the one that introduces Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the head of the household, as if an alien being were maneuvering its spacecraft. At the back of the patio-garage, the camera awaits the entry of his Ford Galaxie, its headlights brightly shining, framed as if it were a spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). He steers it with utmost precision. While the tight parking space and the huge car provide one of the most charming motifs in the film, from the outset these visuals supply a shorthand to characterize Antonio: absent and unreachable, an alien who doesn’t fit within the family mold.

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf04

The Ford Galaxie, one of Roma‘s recurrent motifs.

Later, almost hilariously, the only mark left by the father’s final abandonment of his family are the piles of books stacked around the home, because he has taken only the bookshelves. The narcissistic gesture underlines a quest for form without content, a vacuity that is not, however, represented as directly violent as is Fermín, whose martial-arts prowess, disdain for Cleo and for his unborn child, and armed aggression toward her in the department store are all indicators of his penchant for violence. This proclivity is underlined by his role in the paramilitary group Los Halcones (The Hawks) responsible for the massacre that the film depicts.

Masculinity and violence are consistently linked in the film and subtly handled. The last good-bye between Sofía and Antonio, as she embraces him on the street before he leaves on his fictional trip to “Canada,” is punctuated by a military escort that marches past. The film that Cleo and Fermín are watching in a movie theater during their final date, when she gives him the news that she has missed her period (after which he abandons her) may be a comedy, but it is also a war movie. It is perhaps understandable that such moments, so crucial for understanding the politics of the film, remained largely unspoken in the interviews and in-person appearances that focused on what the two female protagonists brought to the story. But it has been equally missing from or kept at the margins of the critical accounts of Roma, which have at their most extreme accused the film of silencing the very character it purports to give a voice to: Cleo.

Richard Brody’s sustained analysis in the New Yorker is eloquent and thorough: “Cleo hardly speaks more than a sentence or two at a time and says nothing at all about life in her village, her childhood, her family. She’s a loving and caring young woman, and the warmth of her feelings for the family she works for—and theirs for her—is apparent throughout. But Cleo remains a cipher; her interests and experiences—her inner life—remain inaccessible to Cuarón.”8 Brody mounts a seemingly convincing argument, but his article ignores the fact that the film has served as a lightning rod in the call for domestic women’s rights, which is fueling legislation campaigns both in Mexico and in the United States and perhaps an even broader campaign that the NDWA aims to pursue globally.9 The two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are fascinating as examples of how the film has sparked such diverse, seemingly contradictory discourses and responses.

In Brody’s case, I am tempted to retort that the spoken word is not cinema’s most powerful tool. As anyone in the field knows all too well, cinema developed originally as a mute medium, dependent on images and editing to convey meaning.10 Roma is almost entirely structured around Cleo’s point of view and her experiences; this is the central aesthetic and narrative paradigm that drives the film. I therefore have a hard time accepting the view that it silences Cleo, despite her silent demeanor.

Far from making her experience inaccessible, Cuarón’s portrayal of Cleo has left an indelible mark on many of Roma‘s viewers, a great number of whom are people like her. Aparicio herself, whose role in creating Cleo must also be acknowledged, has remarked how little interest she had, while growing up, in movies and in the business that drives them since she never saw people like herself reflected in their stories or represented on-screen. I’d also argue that it would have been presumptuous of Cuarón to pretend to have access to, let alone intimately understand, Cleo’s “inner world.” Instead, I found his choice to keep his distance from more psychologically driven models of characterization and storytelling—and Eurocentric expectations regarding the triumph of individuality that drive these kinds of narrative conventions—ultimately the most honest and respectful position that a director could have taken.

Societies like Mexico’s carry the weight of centuries of colonialism, with all their historical permutations. How could a single movie challenge all of it? Even if it could accomplish such an unlikely task, would an audience leave the theater satisfied and therefore less willing to underscore the injustice of Cleo’s situation, despite the otherwise kind treatment she receives from her employer? For a story to exist in which Cleo raises her voice and breaks free from the socioeconomic conditions that determine her employment, she would have had to be exceptional. Despite the genuine appeal of such a fantasy, shouldn’t true champions of democracy and collective transformation move beyond an insistence on championing individual exceptionality? This is a movie, after all, about an ordinary human being who does not galvanize a social movement around her (though a different story may eventually be told about the social movements that may yet be mobilized with the film’s lead actor). Cuarón’s achievement with Roma is to scale up the ordinary by turning ordinariness into an epic quality.

I find it equally perplexing that a film that begins with its main character conducting one of her daily chores (cleaning the dog poop) and ends with her return to performing her daily chores (the family’s laundry), seemingly with nothing radical having occurred to change her position in life (though no such claim can be made about her emotional journey), has harnessed such a rallying cry. The NDWA’s website promoting domestic workers’ rights devoted its home page to Roma, with a statement noting that “there are millions of Cleos around the world,” with firsthand accounts by domestic workers of how deeply they identified with her character. At the bottom of the page, a link to the film on Netflix was included.11 During the Q & As, it was also frequently noted that this film marks the first time that domestic workers or Indigenous people have been cast in a lead role—a notable perception, though not factually true. In the Latin American context alone, there are films like Domésticas (Fernando Meirelles and Nando Olival, Brazil, 2001), La camarista (The Chambermaid, Lila Avilés, Mexico, 2018), Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala, 2015), and many more that belie this perception.

So what is it about Roma? True, this “art house” film had a global reach like no other. A more nuanced answer, though, would return to the issue of the film’s silent register: not so much Cleo’s silence, but the quietude of its images. The actions depicted at the start and finish of this story convey a cyclical continuation of domestic labor performed, as it has been for decades, by a particular social class. As if to underscore this circularity, the opening and closing images of the film are echoes of each other: an airplane is framed as a reflection within a water-soaked tile as Cleo cleans dog poop off the garage floor in the opening scene, while the closing scene frames an airplane against the sky just as Cleo, laundry under her arm, disappears onto the rooftop of the family home. The opening and closing shots are not exact shot-reverse-shots of each other, but they could be, especially since the first shot’s high angle is matched by the closing image’s low-angle shot.

As Cuarón’s longtime friend, sometime business partner, and fellow Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro has phrased it so eloquently in his Twitter observations about the film, “The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined—momentarily—and revealed by water (the reflection). All truths in Roma are revealed by water.”12 He continues in the next tweet, “These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household, cannot be broached.”

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf05

“All truths in Roma are revealed by water.”

The unbridgeable gap that the lack of a clearly delineated solution to Cleo’s predicament sparks in the viewer is key to understanding peoples’ reactions to the film. At one Q&A, pressed about the significance of this closing scene, Cuarón noted that his insistence on the overflying planes was not merely to register a lived reality in the neighborhood of Mexico City in which he grew up, which is quite proximate to the airport.13 He also intended to draw attention to the fact that, though people today live in an era that is capable of great advancements, as evidenced by the technological marvel of the airplane, they have been incapable of solving human-scale problems such as those that pertain to the equitable treatment of the domestic working class.

“All truths in Roma are revealed by water.” The provocative statement was made, aptly enough, by the director of The Shape of Water (2017). Perhaps he’s right: the beach scene, where Cleo must enter into the rough ocean water to save the children, amply supports del Toro’s claim. Together with the stillbirth scene at the hospital, these were the two sequences that prompted the most interest and questions both at postscreening Q&As and during Aparicio’s own interviews. In the first scene, she loses her baby; in the second, she comes to terms with her feelings about her stillborn child only after she has saved the family’s children. In the aftermath of averting a tragedy, while she and the rest of the family are piled up in a communal embrace on the beach, she speaks up about her repressed feelings toward the baby she lost: “I didn’t want her.” It is a powerful moment of tension and emotional relief, not just for the characters on-screen but for the audience itself.

An ideologically informed reading of this scene would point out the problem with staging the servant’s transformational moment in terms of her saving Sofía’s children and the additional problem of including, as a follow-up to this cathartic, heroic, and bonding moment, scenes of Cleo’s return to making their beds and washing their laundry. These are valid and important observations. And yet. This reading and so many others like it accomplish little in terms of explaining why this film and this moment moved so many.

During the course of my time with Yalitza Aparicio, I found myself intrigued by the genuinely spontaneous flow of tears that struck certain audience members as they approached her to say hello or to convey to her how much they had enjoyed the film and her performance. These were real, heartfelt tears, sometimes even accompanied by an inability to explain the feelings they themselves were experiencing. I’ll never know what memories and life experiences these audience members brought with them to the film, but I have spent time thinking about the affective chord that Aparicio’s performance clearly touched.

The bonds between people, especially in this case between Cleo and the children, cannot be explained away by ideology: the affection is very real. The affective ties between domestic workers and the families that employ them—particularly in countries with a colonial past, where the practice is pervasive—are a muddy business. Structures of oppression are in place, but if they are enduring it is also because they are enabled by real, emotional ties that exceed and complicate them.

fq.2019.72.4.38-unf06

The affective ties that bind.  Courtesy of Carlos Somonte/Netflix.

The image of the embrace on the beach, resembling something like a mountain of interlocked bodies, was the first to appear in Netflix’s Roma publicity and thus to be associated with the film. Oddly (or not), this image alone made me want to see the film, before I even saw a trailer. The shot of the bodies melding into one another, both collapsing and holding each other up, speaks to the tangled, boundary-defying nature of such affective bonds. In this portrait with the children, Cleo in fact eclipses Sofía. They are Cleo’s children as well, and I don’t say this metaphorically. To me, it is precisely an image of that societal and ideological muddiness, and a recognition of how profoundly imbued the Mexican family is with these relationships, for better or for worse. And there is no reason, as the NDWA campaign demonstrates, not to strive to improve the conditions of employment for domestic workers.

In the Q&As, when the question of the beach scene was posed, Aparicio would begin by recounting how she did not know how to swim. (Cuarón, as widely reported, had not shared the script with anyone, particularly not his two leads.) What got her through this scene, she explained, was to let herself, as Cleo, react to the events as they unfolded. She said that she imagined her own mother’s love for the children she has taken care of in the course of her life as a domestic worker, or imagined a mother’s love in general, and acted as she imagined they might do.

A longer piece could be written about the kind of affective labor that her acting actually involved, given that she is a nonprofessional actor with no advance access to the script, even for some of the more emotionally difficult scenes that she had to endure. Culturally, an affective reserve was already there for her to tap into, even if it did not directly pertain to her own lived experience. The energy of this empathy-driven current was the force that propelled Aparicio’s performance, one that crossed linguistic and cultural boundaries—not, as argued, because she did not speak much in the film, but instead perhaps because the present political climate, driven as it is by stoking fear-driven emotions, has created a desire for a differently affected politics impelled by empathy and understanding.

In fact, global cinema can resonate only when the language it speaks exceeds the need for translation. It may be the case that Netflix and Participant Media leveraged Aparicio’s image for marketing purposes, but it is also unmistakably the case that in giving her such a high-profile and global platform, they have also given her a place where her voice may be amplified. At the time of publication, as evidenced from her post-Oscar appearance on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, at a United Nations–sponsored event in Geneva, she continues to forcefully speak out about the value of recognizing and representing a multiplicity of voices that would otherwise be unheard and unacknowledged.

Notes

All quotations from Roma panels, screenings, and interviews are paraphrased, as recorded by the author from memory.
1. Brooks Barnes, “In Bid to Conquer Oscars, Netflix Mobilizes Savvy Campaigner and Huge Budget, New York Times, February 17, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/17/business/media/netflix-movies-oscars.html; Brian Raferty, “Netflix Spent as Much as $60 Million to Win ‘Roma’ a Best Picture Oscar—and Still Lost,” Fortune, February 25, 2019, http://fortune.com/2019/02/25/netflix-roma-oscar-campaign-green-book/.
2. Javier Cabral, “‘Roma’ Made Yalitza Aparicio a Star: Now She’s Giving a Voice to Her Indigenous Fans,” Washington Post, February 21, 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/roma-made-yalitza-aparicio-a-star-now-shes-giving-a-voice-to-her-indigenous-fans/2019/02/21/d003f3da-2ef8-11e9-813a-0ab2f17e305b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.542f0508e47a.
3. The event took place on February 15, 2019.
4. The NDWA is an organization that coalesced circa 2010 out of the efforts of its now-director, Ai-Jen Poo, a 2014 MacArthur “genius award” recipient, with the purpose of giving caregivers recognition. It has since expanded its mission to organize and advocate for legislation to be applied to other domestic workers, including the protection of illegal immigrants from deportation in the United States. On November 29, 2019, the NDWA was successful in introducing a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights” in the U.S. Congress.
5. Bryce Covert, “The New Federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Would Remedy Decades of Injustice,” The Nation, November 29, 2018, http://www.thenation.com/article/federal-domestic-workers-bill-of-rights-harris-jayapal-labor/. See also “Alfonso Cuarón—Domestic Workers PSA,” issued on behalf of the NDWA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK2jmHiq9Vc&feature=youtu.be.
6. “Normal” schools are rural colleges that are well known for their student organizing, which has led to many demonstrations in Mexico through the decades. This event, known as the Ayotzinapa case, refers to the disappearance (and presumed murder) of forty-three students on September 26, 2014, in the town of Iguala, Mexico. The case galvanized the country against the government’s persistent impunity toward violent crimes and disappearances; suspicions regarding the government’s complicity were ignited as well.
7. Zack Sharf, “Alfonso Cuarón Talks ‘Roma’: Why the Oscar Winner Partnered with Netflix and Became His Own Cinematographer,” IndieWire, July 25, 2018, http://www.indiewire.com/2018/07/alfonso-cuaron-roma-netflix-cinematographer-interview-1201987584/
8. Richard Brody, “There’s a Voice Missing in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma,’” New Yorker, December 18, 2018.
9. Stephanie Nebehay, “‘Roma’ Actress Brings Star Power to Support of Domestic Workers,” Reuters, March 8, 2019, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-womens-day-roma-idUSKCN1QP1V6.
10. For more thorough rebukes of Brody’s position on the film, consult the special dossier on Roma published in the online blog Mediático, December 24, 2018, http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/.
11. See the NDWA website: https://roma.domesticworkers.org/. Also see Monica Castillo’s story about the partnership of the NDWA with the film: “Making Their Work ‘Visible’: Oscar-Nominated ‘Roma’ Spurs Domestic Workers to Activism,” CBS News, February 22, 2019, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/making-their-work-visible-oscar-nominated-roma-spurs-domestic-workers-n974641.
12. Zack Sharf, “Guillermo del Toro Shares 10 Personal Observations about ROMA,” IndieWire, January 14, 2019, http://www.indiewire.com/2019/01/guillermo-del-toro-roma-personal-observations-1202034874/.
13. Alfonso Cuarón, statement made at the Variety screening of Roma in Los Angeles on December 10, 2018.

© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.