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.

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?