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 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 stay 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. No appeal to the audiences for sympathy and compassion for suffering, and to rally viewers into thought, word and action against the forces responsible for keeping Manita and her people in poverty, and for manipulating Fermin into doing thuggish dirty work for the elites so they can continue ruling as despots? No such luck when one works for Hollywood.

The tragedy of “Roma” is that it throws away all opportunities to champion those like Manita who keep the wheels of society functioning and to call for these people to have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as those they serve. Instead the film treats her, Fermin and their fellow underlings as passive curiosities with no voices of their own.

Simon of the Desert: film of a saint dehumanised by his own self-righteous hypocrisy and pride

Luis Buñuel, “Simon of the Desert / Simón del Desierto” (1965)

Buñuel skewers again institutional religion and sanctimonious belief, this time in a satire based on the life of the 4th-century ascetic Simon Stylites who spent 25 years praying and meditating atop a pillar in a desert. Outwardly the saint (Claudio Brook) appears a genuinely humble and devout man but as the film progresses, his pride and self-righteousness prove to be his greatest downfall rather than any temptations offered by Satan (Silvia Pinal) who appears at least three times in different guises. Ostensibly Simon undertook his quest to be closer to God and find peace but subtle hints throughout the film, beginning with his transfer from one pillar to another paid for by a wealthy man, demonstrate a lack of genuine faith and a “holier than thou” self-pride: he neglects to acknowledge his mother and her willingness to suffer in the desert with him, he berates a novice monk for being clean and beardless and he complains about running out of insects and other creatures to bless. Satan comes to him as a sexy schoolgirl, God himself and finally as a guide to a different world which turns out to be our modern Western age. The film drops Simon and Satan, now a modish young woman, in the middle of a discotheque filled with teenagers jiving to a rock’n’roll band: Simon, now smoking and drinking alcohol, and looking like an ivory-tower intellectual who got blackmailed by a beautiful student into a date with her, gets bored and wants to leave but Satan tells him to wait right to the end when she and the others have finished dancing.

As the budget for the film ran out before its completion, Buñuel was forced to finish it quickly and abruptly, hence the completely unexpected climax and denouement in which Simon is transported 1,700 years into the future. I’m not sure though whether, if Buñuel had had more money, the intended ending would have been any better: the aim was to show how Simon’s determination to make himself suffer before God and his pride in undergoing more rigour than anyone else can stand undermine his humanity and resistance to Satan. I imagine the film would simply have piled on more examples of Simon undoing himself by his own actions, losing more of his humanity and purpose in life before he is reduced enough to succumb to Satan’s temptations. At the end of the film as it is, Simon finds he no longer has much in common with humanity and is farther away from God than what he thought himself to be, and that’s as it should be. Whether the final fall from grace should have taken place in a disco jumping with kids doing the latest dance while sax and guitars play around them is another thing: this scene reveals more about Buñuel’s prejudices towards teenage fads of his time than of Hell itself, and I rather feel Buñuel was unfair towards young kids in this respect when other, more genuinely trashy aspects of Western culture, including anything to do with religion and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, could have portrayed Hell in all its sordidness.

Other characters in the film, major and minor, illustrate Buñuel’s opinion of religious ritual, unthinking conformity and the sheer meanness that human nature can descend to. A thief without hands and his wife implore Simon for a miracle, Simon prays to God and the man suddenly finds his hands restored; instead of praising God and thanking Simon for the miracle, the man cuffs his son while the missus starts planning all the work hubby can now do around the house. Two nearby pilgrims refer to the miracle as a “trick” and various monks also treat this miracle and others Simon performs very lightly, even going so far as to suggest that Satan is responsible for putting food in Simon’s bag than Simon himself or somebody else. The only people in the film Buñuel has any pity or feeling for are Simon’s long-suffering mother, waiting patiently for some attention from her son, and a shepherd dwarf who has more good sense than everyone else in the movie combined.

While the plot and the style of the movie are uneven, at least Brook distinguishes himself by underacting and playing his character po-faced straight to the point where Simon becomes a figure of pity or ridicule while Pinal, clearly relishing her devilish role, slightly overdoes the sexiness and eats up the scenery whenever she appears. Buñuel hit on a real comedy duo in Brook and Pinal. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the plot allows him to show off his skill in filming from different angles, emphasising spatial (and maybe psychological) distance between Simon and the people he interacts with. Surreal influences – a coffin sliding over the grass, for example – intrude into the film and the plot twist near the end doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Perhaps the movie didn’t turn out as Buñuel intended but “Simon of the Desert” is not too bad as it is; any longer and the film might have become repetitive and boring in its latter half. As the saying goes, less is more, and as Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit, and “Simon of the Desert” proves both right.

The Exterminating Angel: satire on bourgeois hypocrisy and human inability to overcome oppression

Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel / El ángel exterminador” (1962)

So far everything I have seen of Luis Buñuel has been supremely first class and “The Exterminating Angel” is no exception. The film is a surrealist fantasy that lampoons the behaviour of the upper class and reveals it as a bunch of cowards, idiots and hypocrites. The plot is simple enough: a wealthy man, Nobilé, invites twenty or so of his pals and their wives to dinner after a night at the opera; after an excellent meal, coffee, conversation and some piano entertainment, the host and his guests discover they are unable to leave the dining-room. (In the meantime, all the servants have fled the mansion.) Over several weeks, the dinner-party guests grow hungry, thirsty and tired, and descend into exactly the barbarous behaviour they decry in working-class people.

The filming technique looks conventional but the dialogue is typically Buñuelian: exchanges are loaded with irony and sarcasm and poke fun at Roman Catholicism and what passes for Catholic morality, and at the guests’ own expectations about their place in society and how the world should revolve around them, their needs and wants. As the days pass, and one hapless man falls into a coma and dies, the guests display moral hollowness (no-one shows any compassion towards the dying guest and his companion), fight over water, make bargains with God, try to kill another guest in a bizarre superstitious ritual and fall into childish ways of solving the problem of leaving the dining-room. Intelligence, logic, any semblance of rationality are all left at the front door (literally, as it turns out) as the guests turn on one another. Viewers discover that all they have in common is their wealth and apart from that, the guests actually loathe one another. There is a suggestion that for some of them, the wealth was not obtained legitimately or was inherited at the expense of other, more hard-working people. (In a later complementary film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Buñuel follows seven dinner companions in search of a decent meal together; two of these companions are shown to be a corrupt ambassador and his friend involved in a drug-trafficking scheme.)

The film’s structure is perfect and builds up quickly: disquieting omens about what will happen (the servants feel they must leave the mansion as soon as they can; one of the waiters trips while carrying the first course and spills the food all over the floor; the real evening’s entertainment that revolves around a bear and two sheep must be cancelled) occur quickly and efficiently for comic effect without elaboration; once the guests discover their predicament, the film settles into an easy-going pace in which Buñuel repeatedly shoots satirical barbs at the bourgeoisie through the guests’ foibles and prejudices. In the meantime, citizens and police outside the mansion worry about the fate of the people within but apart from that, life goes on as normal, illustrating the uselessness of the trapped upper class twats.

Significantly the bear proves harmless to the sheep though the hapless ovines end up being slaughtered by the guests. One doesn’t need to wonder too much at the sort of crass entertainment the bear and the sheep were supposed to provide before it was called off.

The film’s climax comes at the very end when, after freeing themselves in a hilarious ritual that they don’t understand, the guests attend church to thank God for saving them, only to discover that they can’t leave the church buildings! The climax is shown as a series of visual collages: the fade-out / fade-in of successive scenes shows the passage of time; other scenes send up political repression as mounted police chase away and shoot at crowds who are either trying to help the trapped congregation or celebrating their freedom; and eventually a flock of sheep is released into the church to be ripped apart and eaten (and their blood drunk) in a mock parody of Mass.

Repetition, reiterations, contradictions and unusual juxtapositions are major themes in the film which may help explain why about the halfway mark the film starts to drag with repeating ideas for some viewers. There is a surreal dream sequence in which voices, representing deeply felt concerns for some guests, speak off-screen while the guests sleep. The repetition suggests that people, even when given the chance, prefer to stick to convention, ritual and habit even when these threaten to destroy them or any chance they might have of achieving happiness. We know what the problem is, who’s oppressing and destroying us, how the oppression is occurring and what to do about our destroyers … so what’s stopping us from taking control of our destiny?

 

 

 

Pan’s Labyrinth: film of dark fantasy, horror and historical drama that inspires hope and courage

Guillermo del Toro, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
This is an excellent film that successfully combines dark fantasy and horror with historical drama set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944 to inspire people with hope and courage. The Spanish Civil War has ended several years before 1944 with the triumph of General Franco and his forces though rebels still hide in the forests, building up an underground network of resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) brings his heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), to his country homestead. Carmen is severely ill and in no fit state to travel but Vidal insists his son must be born “where his father is”. Where his father is means hunting down, capturing, torturing and/or killing the rebels with as much savagery as dear old Dad relishes. Literally hitting the odd rabbit poacher around the face with a bottle and killing him is par for the course. Reading bed-time stories to Junior must be out of the question, which would kill any attempts on big sister Ofelia’s part to be acquainted with the baby as she fills her life with books of fantasy, in particular one about a princess who left her underground kingdom to live in the world above, got lost, aged and died. The underground realm is still open to the return of the princess’s spirit if she were to undertake three tasks to prove her identity and worth.
Hey, hey, Ofelia discovers she may be that princess as a couple of insect-fairies introduce her to a monstrous faun (Doug Jones) living in a circular labyrinth deep in the garden next to Vidal’s homestead. The faun commands her to perform the three tasks within a certain time period. They turn out to be dangerous and difficult as they mirror her knowledge and experience of the world around her and take on aspects of the brutal and severe society she lives in and of the values and beliefs she has been taught. In one task, she just manages to escape being eaten by another monster (also played by Doug Jones) and the faun, on hearing the details surrounding that escape, tells the girl she is not fit for her tasks and refuses to deal with her any more.
In the meantime her stepfather Vidal lives out his own fantasy about creating a new Spain and bringing up his son to know of his father and grandfather’s deeds, grand to Vidal but horrible and undeserving of celebration to viewers; he fails to see that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor (Alex Angulo) are secretly helping the resistance. Eventually the two are caught: Mercedes manages to mutilate Vidal and escape but must leave Ofelia behind; the doctor is executed. Carmen gives birth to a healthy son and dies. Ofelia is left alone with Vidal, the faun comes back to her with the third task, and from this point on, Ofelia and Vidal’s respective fantasy worlds draw closer to the inevitable collision.
The actors play their roles efficiently but they are only playing stock characters as the film’s focus is on celebrating hope and imagination in situations and environments where people, institutions and governments actively or passively repress creativity and intelligence and turn populations into expendable robots. This applies as much to contemporary Western societies where people’s thinking and imagination are shaped and dictated to by distant unseen individuals and corporations with hidden agendas as it does to societies where the brainwashing and repression are more obviously blunt, brutal, clumsy and at times backfiring on the regimes’ objectives. It’s easy to criticise Baquero’s blank and stoic portrayal of Ofelia but viewers must consider such a portrayal as a distancing device among other things (for example, being po-faced would not attract the attention of a hated step-parent); likewise, Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal which can be theatrical and makes him as much a comic and pathetic character as a black-hearted sadistic villain has to be seen in the same light. The scene where Vidal tries DIY surgery is full of black humour: it shows just how insecure about his own masculinity Vidal is, that he refuses to ask for help. Perhaps this says something about the nature of repressive authoritarian regimes: they look secure on the outside but on the inside, who knows how really fragile they are?
The adult female characters Carmen and Mercedes are worth mentioning as complementary opposites. Carmen is a helpless mother, symbolic of the common people whose only function is to do the bidding of the political and social elites, represented by Vidal’s dinner party guests who include the local gentry and padre; her death in childbirth demonstrates her complete exploitation (she’s only useful to Vidal as incubator of his heir) and by implication that of the people she represents. Mercedes is more of a mother to Ofelia, promising to rescue her, but can’t help the girl even when she keeps her promise; I see her as representative of the common people’s resistance to oppression which, however heroic, can be fallible and sometimes wavering.
Ultimately when two fantasy worlds clash, one survives, the other crumbles and apparently disappears. Ofelia is confirmed as the true princess of the underground kingdom in a self-sacrificing act that recalls Christ’s crucifixion. Vidal’s wishes for his son to know his father and grandfather and for the child to continue his ancestors’ deeds come to nothing in a scene where he gives the baby to Mercedes that demonstrates how truly far gone in his fantasy world Vidal is. Yet the reality is that Vidal’s new Spain continues for another 31 years while Ofelia’s world disappears with her with only fragments left behind. After 1975 it seemed that Vidal’s Spain had gone forever but with the country now on the brink of bankruptcy, the Zapatero government preparing to send the army in against striking air traffic controllers at this time of writing (7 December 2010) and various sectors within Spanish society clamouring for a rehabilitation of Franco and asserting that he “saved” the country from its “enemies”, can we really be sure that Vidal’s fantasy world simply isn’t lying underground, waiting to grow again?