Roma: a passive film where characters react to major events with blankness

Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma” (2018)

Conceived as a homage and dedicated to his birth family’s housemaid and nanny Libo, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” brings together a soap opera chronicle centred around a year in the life of a teenage housemaid working for a privileged middle class family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City with elements of situation comedy, drama and social documentary. The film is slow and laid-back, its plot unfurling its secrets at a leisurely and straightforward pace, immersing the viewer in its sub-plots and the lovingly detailed if chaotic environment of Mexico City in 1971; yet with the use of black-and-white film, “Roma” does keep an arm’s-length distance away from the viewer, and focuses on celebrating human strength and endurance in the face of often overwhelming tragedy, pain, violence and above all indifference from forces larger than the individual and the community in which she lives.

The film begins with Manita (Yalitza Aparicio) going about her daily chores in the household of a hospital doctor, his biochemistry teacher wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and their four boisterous children, with whom Manita establishes very deep emotional bonds. Viewers may notice early on that editing tends to be sparse and scenes are very long, with the camera following characters in long panning actions; this not only has the effect of involving the viewer in a voyeuristic relationship with Manita, which at times can be uncomfortable as well as emotional, but also renders the film as passive and reticent as its main character. In her free time, Manita is seeing a new boyfriend Fermin, who lives in a slum neighbourhood and is training in martial arts. Yalitza soon discovers she is pregnant; at the same time, Sofia’s doctor husband leaves his wife and family. From then on, Sofia struggles to keep up appearances, taking her children and Manita on holidays to relatives and friends’ plush mansions in the country, and Manita, assured by Sofia that she won’t be sacked for being pregnant, continues doing the household chores. At one point in the film, Manita seeks out Fermin and finds him at a martial arts training session, but Fermin vehemently rejects her and the unborn child.

The rest of the film follows Manita’s pregnancy as it progresses and the tensions developing within Sofia’s family as the children realise that their father is never coming home. While the characters suffer various and often tragic personal setbacks, a second narrative becomes more and more obvious: the film shows the stark contrasts between the lives of the wealthy in their clean, orderly neighbourhoods and the tastefully designed city districts they frequent, and the lives of the very poor in the slum outskirts of the city. Characters make remarks about government rural clearances and take-overs of peasant farms which are given to rich landowners or private companies. One theme in the film is the insidious influence of the United States in Mexican society in the movies Manita watches in the cinema or on television, and in the presence of the CIA agent overseeing Fermin and other martial arts trainees at the session. The intrusion of politics and other dark forces that neither Manita nor Fermin understands comes quite late in the film when, while shopping for a baby’s cot with Sofia’s mother, Manita is caught up in the Corpus Christi massacre that followed a university student demonstration demanding political freedoms for workers and peasants, and reforms in education that would benefit the poor and the indigenous people especially. The martial arts training that Fermin has been taking is now revealed as paramilitary training under the umbrella of fascistic group Los Halcones directed by Mexican security forces and the CIA.

The film is crammed with various technical, visual and narrative devices and themes which are not drawn out and elaborated on in much detail. The men in this film seem unwilling to accept their responsibilities to their families in a traditionally patriarchal society. Women have to shoulder the burden of caring for children and maintaining the family unit under much political and social pressures. Cycles of birth and death revolve continuously in the film to the extent where the mere presence of water – especially flowing water – instantly signals to the audience to get ready for signs of birth or Christ-like resurrection. Indigenous people lose lands that have been theirs for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to the government and the local and foreign elites who control it; these people, like Manita, must go to the overcrowded cities to find low-paid and physically arduous work.

Because the characters in the film are either submissive to authority or living their lives in a cossetted world sealed off from the reality and complexity of Mexican society in the early 1970s, they tend to stay fairly flat and undeveloped. Their reaction to the great political and social crises of their time – the ongoing conflict between fascistic Mexican governments, backed by the CIA, and socialist-oriented groups (including student groups); the government persecution of farmers and indigenous peoples, forcing them to flee to the cities which quickly become overcrowded mega-cities – is blank. The unfortunate takeaway message from “Roma” is that humans must continue to endure with resignation the punishments and repressions rained upon them by fascist forces both local and abroad, while trying to live their own lives as best they can, with all the pain and misfortune that Lady Luck might throw at them.