By Ricardo Sanín Restrepo
Roma is both a personal and an epic film based on the life of a household in Mexico City in 1970. Its director, Alfonso Cuarón, shot it in a translucid black and white creating an almost novelistic piece of cinema as we witnessed the character development of its two female protagonists. It is also a tale full of pathos, social commentary and political awakening
The poet should endeavor, if possible, to combine all poetic elements; or failing that, the greatest number and those the most important; the more so, in face of the caviling criticism of the day.
Like all great aesthetic works, Roma by Alonso Cuarón can be seen and felt in innumerable ways. I want to focus on one. Roma is one of the most scathing and beautiful critiques of cinema through cinema itself, the purest form of metacritique. What Cuarón puts into play is nothing less than a deep assessment of the capacity of cinema, as a pure poetic form, to represent a world and at the same time the power of transforming it, while, as Wilde commanded, “concealing the artist”. The Mexican filmmaker has focused a potent magnifying glass on cinema itself as a form of political denunciation and protest, and as an aesthetic form that can overturn the solid relationships of this uncanny thing that we call reality. Cuarón demolishes the four walls of cinema through sheer objectivity. Is there objectivity in art? Only if the means at the disposal of the artist do not disturb the world it creates. If such a thing is possible, he has done so through a camera that becomes a naked eye, a lidless eye staring into a past that summons the present at every turn. The cinematography of Roma is a spiritual eye that slices through the membranes of time, it does not judge, it does not intervene, it unveils, from an appropriate distance, the ghosts that are within us. Does he take a side? The side that knows that there is no hierarchy in the combination of sight and sense. This technique involving a style we could identify as phenomenological, turns Roma into an homage and at the same time a crucial judgment on the aesthetic and political values of cinema itself. The director develops to an extreme tendencies in the works of some of the greatest filmmakers in history, filmmakers that have distinguished themselves by their political commitment while also being aesthetes to the core. (I often think Nihilism is the existentialist excuse for procrastination.)
Cuarón uses cinema as an indictment of cinema. He uses cinema as a vehicle for cinema to show us the very limits of this art form when it confronts the abyss of life in its most stark and crude form. Cuarón (as far as I can see) asks and answers what would happen if we brought into the iconic scenes (and styles) of Bergman, Hitchcock or Fellini a history impregnated with racial and colonial color? For example, Cleo’s scene trapped in a monumental traffic jam in Mexico City on the day of the «Halconazo» with her labor pains quotes from Fellini’s 8½ dream sequence. However, the contrast speaks volumes, it expresses adjacent worlds that are diametrically opposed. Fellini’s scene expresses the «alienation» of the urban modern white man. Despite its beauty, it is just that, an alienation that does not unfold in a world fractured by very complicated relations of domination by gendered and racial difference etc. It is simply the modern burden of the intellectual dealing with the daemons flowing through his cultural veins. This type of modern man´s alienation is only the tip of an iceberg, or rather, another privilege of the white male, who creates the monsters of power which he thereafter denounces aesthetically. Nevertheless this denunciation is egotistic, even narcissistic. What happens when Cuarón puts an indigenous woman in the same situation as Fellini puts Mastroianni´s character? The world is thrown into an abyss of pain, instantaneously penetrating and mauling the machines of alienation that are seen now as pure machines of oppression, not of the white male, but of what the male makes invisible with his alienation and delimits with his aesthetic privilege. The difference between Guido Anselmi and Cleo is the difference between the horizontal suffocation of the modern man and his aesthetic form of negation and the oppression that can be visible and audible only as an eternal moan, a grunt inside the hollow tunnel of vertical oppression.
The first scene of the movie is an impeccable construction of the architecture of power. A neutral camera, which never invades, that glides with a sterility, never becoming a voyeur, a la Hitchcock. Cuarón does not want to undress the blonde object of desire of the James Stewarts or Cary Grants of the white world; no! Cuarón takes us from the invisible to the visible (leaning more towards Tarkovsky). The light within which the bourgeois house (the abode of truth) exists is illuminated from an invisible point, from a black impenetrable vacuum that feeds it incessantly. This architecture (a beautiful Cuarón trademark) depicts attentively that that which class privilege shows and that which it hides are indivisible parts, made of the same substance, tied by the same umbilical cord. The camera takes us to the back rooms (laundry rooms, servants’ rooms) that are the gray, corroding bones of wealth where the luster of fine woods and white children are shined and nurtured.
The fire in the “hacienda” is similar to many scenes that involve the idle class of Fellini´s La Dolce Vita. Again, Cuarón shows us that on the other side of the spectacle that awakens them (the fire), there is an entire economy of structural poverty and invisibility. If it were not a fortuitous fire that gets them out of eternal slumber it could well be a war, you know “just to see the world burn in beautiful colors”. The «dance» that precedes the fire, better yet that prophesies it, alludes to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In the latter, the scene serves the director as an integrationist social project; with the human conga line the Ekdahl family symbolically integrates the army of servants they employ. But Cuarón gives a dark twist, the dancing conga line (a human centipede) is shown as merely a macabre ritual of the rich that the poor (Cleo, sitting on the floor) observe, with as much curiosity as horror.
Žižek has made an analysis of the film as a certain awakening of a political subject (Cleo). We can add something else here. The film is made of cycles, it starts with an airplane reflected in a soapy floor, an illusion, and closes with another airplane in the open sky. Nevertheless, the cycle is for us, not for Cleo: Do we love that the symbolism is more powerful than Cleo´s relentlessness? Are we celebrating the cycle closing because Cleo is back to an aesthetic normality? Where she belongs? Is it not rather that the authentic trapped and anesthetized political subject, caught in the web of normality, is us, the spectators? Cleo and her “sister” know that they are always being watched, always supervised, do they turn off the light or not, etc. Cleo knows very well (maybe not in these words) that for the middleclass family she is a consumerist luxury as disposable as the Ford Galaxy. She knows that she can only express what has been repressed within the human context she serves when she is willing to sacrifice herself to it. That she can only «declare» or «report» above a moan when she submits herself to a sacrificial liturgy; in the meantime every cry is suppressed and controlled, measured precisely.
Cuaron´s cinematic experience as a vehicle for film criticism (as far as I can see) throws a mea culpa at the white artist who has either focused on his own modern «malaise» or “discontent” towards a civilization he cannot escape nor abjure or that, worse yet, wrongly activates a flamboyant libidinal network in order to save the poor and dark. The savior complex that always makes it fall in the rotten pits of power as domination, always missing the mark by universes at a time. Cuarón´s camera is cold but beautiful, a beauty not of intimacy but of architectures, of open angles that do not dilate realities but paints them and leaves them unpronounced, untouched. We do not see his hand trying to save anyone, to recite a manifesto or to stick a pamphlet in our face, it is not a political treatise, rather the wheels he turns are inside a tradition (white and heterosexual) that he uses as an aesthetic filter, to question the capacity of cinema as a poetic art form to open new cracks in what we call «truth». That staging, that making present of the regime of the sensitivities, that novelty of the perspective is called fiction, and it is the art of making present the possible or what the «simulacrum» of the truth makes appear as impossible.
Ricardo Sanín Restrepo is lecturer in various universities across The Americas. He is the author of Being and Contingency (Rowman and Littlefield 2020) translated and published in Spanish as Ser y Contingencia (Tirant lo Blanch 2023). He has also penned numerous academic and cultural articles for many magazines including Perro Negro. Those interested can purchase his book El cuerno de Gabriel here