A Realist Metaphysical Turn in ‘Roma’

On January 26, 2019 by admin


Siddhant Mohan


It was one drunk night of November. I came back from Ayodhya and had finished a piece of reporting over the upcoming radical set up in Ayodhya which would demand for Ram Temple, yet again, to gather the political momentum in three states of north India.

Soon I switched on to the YouTube app on my iPhone and began watching trailer of the movie “Roma (2018)”. The trailer, which lasted for about two minutes, made me sober up a little and I vowed to watch the film in its entirety. The film, as we know, of course has since then become somewhat of a cult across the globe. What might be the reasons?

The culture of Mexican filmmaking and other art forms largely reflect the socio-political situation in and around that part of the world. Much of the creative development in the mainstream culture industry in Mexico used to deal with nudity, drugs, alcohol and so on for a long time in a merely representative sort of a way. This reflected in other creative media too.

But soon came a new wave of Mexican cinema in 1970’s and 80’s when the movies started receiving global recognition. It led to the new wave of Mexican cinema, leading up to the contemporary ones, which still draws a great deal of enthusiasm from cinephiles outside of that nation. I am of course talking about moderate mainstream stuff: mostly owing to the works of the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón who took the lead in Mexican filmmaking and blended their typical style with the Hollywood production techniques.

Iñárritu made ‘Amores Perros’ as the new century started but soon made films like ’21 Grams’ starring Sean Penn and then arrived ‘Babel’. The films were critically acclaimed and received a lot of attention of film lovers too. This trend was on for a while with several low budget films made until 2014 when Iñárritu made “Birdman”. That film won the Academy Award. And surprisingly, Iñárritu also helped Leonardo Dicaprio win his first Academy Award of 2015 with ‘The Revenant’.

Same goes for Guillermo Del Toro, who produced several films of Iñárritu, and went on to direct a few films on the sci-fi theme. That included a fair bit of  work in animations as well. In 2018, Del Toro won Academy Award for his film ‘The Shape of Water’.

The point I have been trying to make is that the new wave of global Mexican cinema pulled out several mythical and fictional plots and reached out to bigger audience. This approach draws from a fund of a far older Latin American archetypal imagination, then being globalized via films. The formula clicked.

In the same trajectory arrives Alfonso Cuarón. He followed the same trend of low-budget Mexican filmmaking initially and grabbed the Academy Award for ‘Gravity’. But this is where Cuarón decides to deviate from the mythical and strange fictional imagination, and goes back to his roots, his early life, his ghetto in Mexico. This is an interesting reversal. He takes a steep turn backwards as it were, and goes on to produce and direct the film we are trying to discuss here: ‘Roma’. The film has has made an immediate impact. Is the world ready for a turn with such films?

‘Roma’, basically a locality in Mexico, is one autobiographical piece about Cuarón himself: on how his family survived through socio-political turmoils of 70s after Cuarón’s father left the family and went on to live with another woman. Cleo, an Indian housemaid in the same family steers the events around her, as it were. The character of Cleo, portrayed Yalitza Aparicio, a rookie actor, is one hell of a silent woman who does not utter a single word of complaint or remorse as she goes on through ordeals.

When Cleo conceives a baby with her first and apparently only boyfriend, she and her employer comes to an a  tacit agreement that women will always be alone. The story-line runs on a very linear manner, involving the very family in the backdrop of the Mexican society which got affected with the political turmoil, increased interference of US government and a slow and uneven paced settlements owing to developmental agendas and forms of neo-colonialism.

Cuarón has portrayed history in a very deft manner, paying attention to every detail possible. Shots of Aeroplanes flying in the backgrounds every now and then remind us of the then political scenario; Mr. Antonio—the one who fell in love with another woman—parks his expensive car with such care so as to avoid any scratch-marks. This is deeply suggestive of an emerging class. And then the historical student-police clash is shown where police fires upon several protesting students killing many of them instantly. All these gets enmeshed within the plot-line.

The plan to make this film in black &white is also a clever ploy. Cuarón takes a plausible risk, using simple shots. He has himself operated the camera, refusing to use zooms. Rather he fixes every shot. He does use longer trolley shots, pans too, but he fixes the camera by trying to make the story focus primarily over Cleo. This persolazizes history. This is clearly a moment of subjectivizing history in a new manner even as we deal with an apparently realist theme.

‘Roma’ is full of long takes and some are truly memorable. One can point out two such shots. In one, Cleo goes into the surgery-room after doctors fail to hear the child’s heartbeat inside her. In a single long take, Cuarón portrays the stillbirth of Cleo’s child: doctors giving CPR to the dead baby, passing the child on to Cleo for the final adieu, takes it back to prepare the baby from cremation and in fact, prepares the baby for its last journey by inserting cotton into its mouth, wraps it in a cloth while Cleo and the audience keeps on crying. And second one is when Cleo tries to save the children from drowning in the sea and takes them back on to the beach. The family including Sofia (the employer), her children and Cleo are hugs each other at the beach. At that point Cleo, for the first time, after that stillbirth blurts out  that she did not want the baby to born, and once again cries her heart out. The length of the shots leads up to a certain emotional connect with the audience.

Aparicio goes into a very vegetative state being not affected by anything around her. Indeed it is a Stoic presence through Cleo that she is able to portray. In fact from her biographical details one knows that Aparicio did not want to be an actress. She wanted to become a teacher but reportedly, her sister and Cuarón himself pressed her for the audition and she did get the role. But her onscreen presence in Roma tells a different story: she is meditative, subtle and filled with a rich grandeur and makes everything around her turn so. It is her presence that brings to us a sense that something big is happening inside that little head of Cleo. For instance, when a broken family takes a trip to the beach-house, we realize that Cleo is driving the story silently, without any fuss.

Cleo’s portrait is not just limited to the character which Aparicio played. It is rather a story of a womanhood which gets reflected, as does episodes of a larger fragmentation every now and then. Moreover, Cleo’s ethnicity and her origin also plays an important role in creating a better understanding of the situation  that she finds her in.

Talking about race and ethnicity, Aparicio faced episode of racism after it was announced the she would feature on Vogue Mexico’s cover. Soon after the announcement Karla Martinez de Salas, editor in chief of Vogue México, admitted to The New York Times about her apprehension about placing her on the cover.

Aparicio comes from Mexico’s indigenous tribe, the Mixtecs. It is still a minority group within Mexico. The news of Aparicio being featured on Vogue or receiving several nominations for her performance (and now a possibility that she would be on the stage of Oscars as well) invited criticism from white supremacists, radical groups within Mixtecs as well as purists in the world of cinema alike who believe that such fanciness and showoff should be limited to certain works and individuals and ought not to be taken seriously. However, Aparicio shuts up the criticism, at least for a while, and declares: “I am not the face of Mexico. It shouldn’t matter what you’re into, how you look—you can achieve whatever you aspire to.”

If we care to go back to the production details, we would be astonished to find that Cuarón actually scanned the streets of Roma thoroughly in Mexico in order to make an exact replica of the set from a time when he and his family suffered the turmoil in 1970s. Kirk Semple, NY Times Correspondent, wrote after a long interaction with Cuarón over making of Roma, “Cuarón and his production team were meticulous in their re-creation of how things were — and how he remembered them to be. They had hoped to shoot in as many original locations as possible and were able to do that in some cases — including the re-creation of the Corpus Christi massacre, when security forces attacked students during a march in 1971.”

With Roma, Cuarón establishes the fact that even in the terms of mainstream cinema, the terrain is shifting. We see a new buffer zone now, trying to make way by destabilizing the divide that marked earlier Mexican films. And by means of doing that reaching out to a larger and newly made audience. Perhaps the audience was already ready to receive such a fare. This is much certain that there is a new edge within moderate mainstream film-making with Roma, which is deftly worked within the frameworks of low-budget filmmaking.

It truly inspires.



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