From Film Quarterly, Summer 2019, Volume 72, Number 4
I first saw Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) early in its run, at the New York Film Festival, with a surprise introduction by his friend and sometimes collaborator, fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.1 Del Toro proclaimed that Cuarón’s work demonstrates that the “road to Hollywood is not a one-way street.” Cuarón’s return to make a film set in Mexico City after the success of Gravity (2013), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, was, del Toro insisted, an “act of will.”Del Toro’s words remained with me as I watched Cuarón’s film. An act of will. The basic premise of del Toro’s claim was clear: not only did Cuarón set and shoot his film in Mexico, but he also rebuilt structures decimated by earthquakes and gentrification, such as the movie theater that he “returned” to the city of 1971 that he remembers. Though epic in its visual quality and its historical setting, Roma is not designed as a blockbuster either in terms of its costs or, seemingly, its proposed box-office reach; it was produced at a fraction of the cost of Gravity and also probably made a fraction of what Cuarón’s previous film received at the box office.2 Shot in black and white, it is a relatively slow-paced film, focused on the daily life of a housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and the family for whom she works. In fact, I remember the sensation of waiting for the film to “begin” as it continued to play. I was awaiting signs of a narrative that would signal beginning and middle and end.
But as I continued to watch, I became conscious that of course it had begun as soon as it started, with the image of water washing over the tiles of the family’s enclosed driveway. The ground is shifted from the very beginning of Roma as, in that opening sequence, the horizontal line of the pavement itself becomes a vertical frame. That spatial realignment enables other realignments as well: narrative, social, and phenomenological. What made this film an “act of will,” I realized, was that as an “epic” work, it focuses on an indigenous woman, a servant to a family that is hers yet not hers. Throughout the film, Cleo is a part of every scene. When she doesn’t appear in a shot, the camera seems to wait for her, and with the camera so does the viewer. She gently and insistently drives this film and, in turn, the way one sees it.
Students of Cinema
If the experience of my viewing of the film was gently yet insistently altered over the space of two hours, upon its end I experienced a kind of revelation. As I stared at the final image—a still shot of the exterior staircase that Cleo has climbed, itself a return to the opening scene—a thought occurred to me: It is as if I have just seen cinema for the first time.
This idea came to me involuntarily, immediately followed by a sense of internal embarrassment over such unexpected pretentiousness. Yet as I left the crowded theater and walked down the street, slowly approaching the park in front of me, I could not shake this idea; again and again, with a sense that I could not even control it, I repeated it in my head. I wondered, too, if this sensation might have been what it felt like to see Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939) when they first appeared on-screen.3 Its black-and-white stock and historical setting give Cuarón’s film the sense of belonging to another time, but it wasn’t just that which struck me. Roma has the breadth of these films, and at the same time, the intimacy of everyday (or sometimes singular) experience in the midst of political tumult.
I see references, explicit or implicit or even unintentional, to both these films in Roma. Cuarón’s title and its parallels with Italian neorealism almost innately recall Rossellini’s film. A New Year’s hunting scene in Roma, with its strict line of well-heeled guests with guns standing along a horizontal field, seems a variation on the hunting scene in Renoir’s Rules (minus the rabbits). Yet an even better comparison might be to a film with less explicit grandeur: Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), the story of an aging pensioner and his little dog Flike in postwar Italy. Umberto D.’s landlady wants to kick him out of his apartment building, and his only friend at home appears to be the maid Maria. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, De Sica holds the camera on Maria as she battles invading ants with a hose from the kitchen sink and then later sets fire to a newspaper to chase them away. Standing in the kitchen with Umberto D., she shortly thereafter entrusts the aging tenant with the secret that she’s pregnant. Yet in the case of Cuarón’s film, Cleo (also pregnant) does not merely take over one key scene: the film has become entirely hers.
Roma returned to the Film Society of Lincoln Center in January 2019, as part of a retrospective series, “The Complete Cuarón,” that screened the director’s eight feature films. Cuarón returned as well, for a conversation with Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, preceding a showing of Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Cuarón’s first cinematic return to Mexico after making two features in the United States: an adaptation of A Little Princess (1995) and an adaptation of Great Expectations (1998). In his attempt to reclaim his love for film in the late 1990s while living in New York, Cuarón told the audience, he’d gone to his local video store in Greenwich Village and rented film after film that had initially formed him as a filmmaker, from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) to Francis Ford Coppola’s Rain People (1969) to works he named via their directors: Carl Theodore Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Alain Tanner. Now the comparisons I’ve made to classic directors might seem obvious, intentionally embedded in the film by its maker. After all, “I am a student of cinema,” Cuarón explained.
For those viewers who have been students of Cuarón’s films or are newly so, as the Lincoln Center series enabled, the fact that he has built his most recent work around a woman should not be surprising. His Oscar-winning Gravity is also centered on a woman who is quite literally alone in space for the majority of the film. Set in the near future of 2027, Children of Men (2006)—in spite of its title—is centered on the survival of the only known pregnant woman and then on her infant daughter. Two of his adaptations (A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ) come from books by female authors that center on or feature remarkable young girls. Even Y Tu Mamá También is arguably as much about Luisa (Maribel Verdú) as it is about the two young men who desire her. In this way, Roma is part of a consistent progression in his work.
Roma also stages itself as a study of Cuarón’s previous films through a self-reflexivity that is a hallmark of a self-designated auteur as well as an exhibition of signature traces for film lovers to discover. Hence the image of an airplane caught in the splashes of water that open the film: perhaps a brief commentary on the transnational reception of his films, it is also a return to the filmmaker’s very first feature, Sólo con Tu Pareja (1991), as well as Y Tu Mamá También, both of which feature planes flying overhead. Similarly, each film Cuarón sets in Mexico features a yellow Volkswagen bug—a mobile “Easter egg” for cognoscenti. And when the family goes to the movies in Roma, they watch Marooned (John Sturges, 1969): in that scene, the final shot of the screen is of an astronaut adrift in space, invoking at once Cuarón’s own Gravity and a film he might have seen as a child that could have informed that exact work. Each of these elements is emblematic of comings and goings: through Mexico City, to Hollywood and back, into outer space, and home again.
These details are the fodder of a cinephile’s delight—whether that of the filmmaker Cuarón himself or of his audience—but it is the broader structure of Roma that captures my attention: what Cuarón has referred to as an “inquiry” into the relation between “background” and “foreground.”4 In his conversation with Jones, he explained that he wanted to give “as much importance to the foreground as to the background, meaning as much importance to the character as to the social environment that surrounds the character.” Whereas in Y Tu Mamá También the commentary between the two young protagonists was conveyed through voice-over, in Roma the commentary is embedded in the visual details. That commentary, furthermore, is shrouded in memory, for Cuarón declared that the camera was like a “ghost from the present that observes the past. … I was not interested in the nostalgic approach to memory. I was interested in the past from the standpoint of the present. Meaning the past from my understanding of the present and also what makes that past relevant, at least for me. How that past shaped who I am for good and for ill.”
From Knowing to Loving
Fleeting details that are also reminders of Cuarón’s past films become another kind of “background” for the work, thereby creating a narrative about the filmmaker’s departure from and return to Mexico. After all, his three films produced and set in Mexico have another commonality beyond a flash of an airplane. An homage to his childhood in his first two films—a kind of private reference for the filmmaker—appears in the body of a woman: Cuarón’s nanny and his family’s housekeeper, Libo (Liboria Rodríguez), upon whom Cleo is based and to whom Roma is dedicated, has brief appearances in both Sólo con Tu Pareja and Y Tu Mamá También.5 In Roma, of course, she shifts from the background to the foreground.
Moreover, the particular details of everyday life for Cleo are enmeshed within the film’s overarching structural elements and, further, in my own love for the film—a sensation so strong that I almost can’t articulate it. But perhaps such ineffability is at the center of love itself, for love is a sensation that is (or should be) utterly lacking in control over the object of love. Love also is inescapably and perhaps even necessarily bound to knowledge, even if, in loving, one may accept what cannot be fully known. At the same time, love and knowledge are linked to respect: in the case of Roma, this means a recognition by the film, and thus by the viewer in turn, of Cleo as the center of a story of everyday life in the midst of political revolution and horror.
For André Bazin, ambiguity is imperative to an understanding of cinema that springs from or is conjoined with other affective qualities. In his essay “De Sica: Metteur en Scène,” the source of my opening epigraph, Bazin considers those qualities—visual, emotional, and phenomenological—that demonstrate the “neorealism” of director Vittorio De Sica’s early films. “Neorealism,” he writes, “knows only immanence. It is from appearance only, the simple appearance of beings and of the world, that it knows how to deduce the ideas that it unearths. It is a phenomenology.”6 That phenomenological state engendered by film—one of experience, or of being—is also, then, a state of feeling. As Bazin goes on to assert: “To explain De Sica, we must go back to the source of his art, namely to his tenderness, his love.”7
It is such tenderness that I see again and again in Roma, and it is tenderness that I feel in response to it. When Cleo sings the only daughter of the family, Sofi, to sleep, her back is to the camera, so that Sofi’s loving gaze at her is openly perceptible. Later in the film, Cleo will awaken Sofi by singing again, her fingers running gently along the child’s back to narrate the song. Cleo’s gesture of love for this child is also Cuarón’s gesture of love for Cleo and for Libo; for the viewer of Roma those gestures are compounded into a love for these figures and for the film itself.
Cuarón manages a balance between planes—political, historical, social, and aesthetic—in nearly every frame of the film. It is that complexity of planes, often simultaneously rendered, that deepens what I feel while watching this film. Thus, whereas the “appearance of beings and of the world” might be “simple” for Bazin, the love from which it originates and the love that is inscribed in Cuarón’s films is not. Rather than an easy “form of optimism,” love is ultimately both tethered to and distinct from justice, particularly in the “psychological and material complexities” of the social relationships that Bazin traces.
Those complexities are simply rendered in the living conditions of Cleo and the family for whom she works. Offset from the family’s home, at the end of their gated alley, Cleo shares a room with her coworker and friend Adela (Nancy García García), whereas the family—mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira); her mother, Teresa; Sofía’s husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga); and their four children, Toño, Paco, Pepe, and Sofi—live in the main two-story home. One rare evening when Antonio is home, the family sits together on sofas and chairs watching television. Cleo pauses a moment while picking up dishes—the spoils of dessert—and sits next to the sofa, where Paco puts his arm around her. But Sofía catches this scene out of the corner of her eye and asks Cleo to fetch “Dr. Antonio’s” tea, over the protest of Pepe. As Cleo goes, the camera follows—to the kitchen, where Adela and the chauffeur, Ignacio, are having their own supper. Cleo sets the plates in the sink and asks Adela to start the tea.
This, then, is the order of things, an order that is recognized but not openly debated. Yet in the camera’s devotion to Cleo—a camera held and controlled by Cuarón, after all—this class structure is at once acknowledged and challenged.8 After all, the backdrop to the film as a whole is social unrest: students are increasing protests against President Luis Echiverría Álvarez as part of a return to Mexico’s large-scale student antiauthoritarian movement, which itself ended in the Tlateloco massacre of 1968, during which the military and police killed hundreds of protestors. With this backdrop, Cuarón calls attention to the fact that Mexico had protests as massive as the ones in France and the United States, which are more frequently represented in films about the era.
But save for a casual remark at dinner over the death of a child for throwing rocks at police (Cleo is the only one who is visibly alarmed), this backdrop seems destined to remain just that, rather than a central element of the film. Hence while a scene between Cleo and her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) might seem disturbing, its significance is not yet clear on a national scale (particularly for Roma‘s audiences outside Mexico).9
On a beautiful day, the two eschew a trip to the movies to instead enjoy the outdoors, though in fact the film quickly cuts to them in a rented room, Fermín naked in the bathroom and Cleo sitting in the middle of the bed. Taking down the shower rod to use as a sword, Fermín performs an intense—and fairly menacing—martial arts display for Cleo, ending with the shower rod/sword directed toward her (and toward the camera, since they occupy the same position in much of the scene). Cleo watches with barely disguised mirth, politely asking her boyfriend brief questions as he responds with a monologue about being orphaned by his parents and being saved by martial arts. “Everything came into focus, much like when you look at me.”
Now the camera focuses on Cleo, who softens at Fermín’s wooing. And the film cuts again to Cleo’s point of view as Fermin approaches, seemingly to set his head in her lap. This is a rare moment of Cleo’s point of view being literalized through the camera lens, thereby affirming the point of view the viewer shares with her throughout the film—remaining with her or waiting for her in every scene, seeking her perspective on the action that takes place in both the foreground and the background.
Cleo and Fermín’s skipping the movie leads to her becoming pregnant, and it’s back at the movies that she tells him that she is. He responds (seemingly) happily and then excuses himself to go to the toilet. He never returns. His cowardice is typical of the primary men of the film. As Cleo anxiously prepares to inform Sofía of her circumstances, Sofía sits with her mother discussing her own husband’s disappearance from the family. Rather than turning away from Cleo—or firing her, as Cleo had feared—Sofia instead accepts her news and announces that she will bring her to a doctor (and one, the film soon shows, who is also a woman).
Through Cleo’s contrasting relationships with Sofía and Fermín, the two levels of visual language and experience collide in ways that are reflective not only of national and class politics, but also of gender and sexual politics. With the departure of the fickle patriarch, Cleo becomes part of a matrilineal family, a site that implicitly and explicitly critiques men’s selfishness and cowardice as well as their violence. After all, when Cleo seeks out Fermín again, she finds him at a training camp where hordes of men train in martial arts at the base of a hill inscribed with the initials of the current president: LEA. When she speaks with Fermín he threatens her with a move that echoes the earlier scene in their rented room: pointing his wooden pole at her, he tells her he will kill her if she returns.
These worlds—Cuarón’s “foreground and background”—collide most forcefully when Sofía’s mother, Teresa (Verónica Garcia), takes Cleo shopping for a crib, chauffeured by Ignacio (the only man to stick around with these women).10 As the three of them walk toward a furniture store, the visual planes of the film shift again, first hiding the three behind rows of trucks filled with military personnel intent on converging on the student protestors whose chants account for the primary sound of the scene, and then revealing the three shoppers and students briefly as they pop back into view when a space opens between vehicles.
When they enter the store, the shoppers’ conversation with a clerk is interspersed with the growing volume of the students’ protests. As violence begins—marked by screams and shots—those in the store run to the window to witness the eruption of violence outside as hundreds of students run through the streets followed by thugs with sticks and guns. The “background” intrudes on the foreground when injured students seek shelter in the store, only to be trailed by hired guns of the military who murder them. In fact a gun itself takes over the center of the screen; the camera pulls away to reveal Fermín’s own return as the potential shooter. Dressed in a T-shirt he’s worn earlier in the film—which reads “amores” over a heart-enclosed cartoonish embracing man and woman—he holds the gun toward Cleo and Teresa before running out with the rest of the killers.
If the planes of foreground and background converge in this scene, the background again shifts to foreground on the street. There the camera pans first to show militants smashing car windows and shooting into the crowd and then to reveal Cleo, Teresa, and Ignacio huddled in an alley at the back of the frame, Ignacio’s arm protectively stretched across Cleo’s body, as if to shield her from this mayhem. As they sneak away in the background, a student holds her dying friend—their book bags spilled onto the street—screaming for help.
In such a moment, in the presence of death and horror and injustice, how can I possibly describe my feelings toward this film as a form of love? After all, this tragedy is only compounded in the scenes that follow at the hospital, where Cuarón’s visual structure comes to its climax. Visually set in the horizontal center of the frame, Cleo gives birth to her baby in distress. Behind her body in the upper half of the frame, doctors perform CPR on the infant, ultimately ceasing their work when she has no heartbeat. Barely able to catch her own breath, Cleo holds her dead infant in her arms before the doctors take her away. The doctors continue to work at the back of the frame while Cleo watches them, guiding the viewers to this simultaneous plane of vision: a grieving mother and the compassionate if rushed medical personnel who haven’t been able to save her child’s life.
The scene is overwhelming—visually controlled by the largely static camera and the clarity of light yet emotionally out of control for the characters and the film’s viewers. As writer, director, cinematographer, and editor, Cuarón had near complete control of Roma. Moreover, he shot the film in sequence, allowing the performers to see the stages of the narrative and their scenes and dialogue only on the day that they were shooting their respective scenes. In these ways, Cuarón made himself both more and less vulnerable as an artist. Roma is very much his personal and artistic vision.
The second time I saw Roma was on Christmas day. But I didn’t just see it; I sought it out. In the midst of a family medical crisis, I was looking for comfort, for sanctuary, for something that felt shared. Perhaps I was seeking something akin to what Cuarón was looking for when, two decades ago, he rented movies by Bresson and Dreyer and De Sica. I was looking for something that I loved, but I was also looking for a sense of myself, which had become tangled and fraught over the previous several weeks as I worried over my mother’s health and wrestled with my family.
During this second viewing, I didn’t feel as if I were seeing cinema for the first time. Instead, I recognized why I care about this medium. In its best state, it is, as Bazin wrote, bound up with love. And that love is rendered possible through a shared understanding, as much between the viewer and the film as between characters within it or viewers outside of it. With this understanding, that love, for me, became an act of recognition.
I wish to thank Kiera Alventosa for her outstanding research assistance with this article.
1. The epigraph is from André Bazin, What Is Cinema, trans. Hugh Gray, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 72.
2. One could argue that the fact that Netflix released the film online simultaneously with its wider national release in the United States made that fraction of return much less.
3. In the case of Renoir’s film, I am clearly ignoring the fact that critics and audiences initially panned it.
4. These and other uncredited statements are taken from Cuarón’s remarks onstage at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s winter 2019 retrospective.
5. In Sólo she is a scandalized neighbor, and in Y Tu Mamá she plays the housekeeper of Tenoch’s (Diego Luna) family.
6. Bazin, What Is Cinema, 64–65.
7. Bazin, What Is Cinema, 69.
8. As is widely acknowledged, Cuarón is not only director and writer of Roma but also its cinematographer and editor.
9. Guerrero was initially refused a visa to travel to the United States for the Academy Awards, but eventually he was able to secure one. See Joelle Goldstein, “Roma Star Jorge Antonio Guerrero Granted U.S. Visa ahead of the Oscars after Being Denied 3 Times,” People, February 11, 2019, https://people.com/movies/roma-actor-jorge-antonio-guerrero-approved-visitor-visa-netflix/.
10. My thanks to Rebecca Gordon for this insight.
© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.