Sunday, December 9, 2018

Alfonso Cuarón | Roma

mothers without a voice
by Douglas Messerli

Alfonso Cuarón (screenwriter and director) Roma / 2018

Based loosely on the director’s upbringing in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City—hence the film’s title Roma, which also hints of an attachment to “Rome,” and a relationship to the “Roma” population the “Romansh,” who throughout the world are generally described simply as “gypsies.”
      It is a strange title given the fact that the central family upon which this film focuses are upper-middle-class citizens, who not only live in a house with 3-4 servants, but who also have a constantly defecating dog, Borros, as well as several birds and 4 children, this family supported by a doctor father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and his rather passive, biochemist professor wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), along with her mother Teresa (Verónica García). In fact this large family is mostly being cared for by their house-keeper (Yalitza Aparicio), who lives in this menagerie mostly as a kind of beloved slave. Throughout the opening credits of the film she washes-down of the home’s entry-way, the dog’s and bird’s abode, which is followed by her desperate attempt to gather up all the dirty laundry before the time arrives for her to pick up the children from their various schools, re-deliver them home, help, with her servant friend Adela (Nancy Garcia) to serve-up dinner, and then, in the very next scene, wash out their clothing on a roof-top eyrie, from where we glimpse others like her performing the very same tasks.
    Without saying anything, director Alfonso Cuarón makes it quite clear that she is on-call for nearly 24-hours each day, rushing to the garage / entry-way each time the master returns in his huge galaxy automobile to hold back the dog, and later in the evening, cuddling up with her young charges as, with their inattentive families, as they watch silly early 1970s television games shows and other fare.
     The director does not, at first, even hint of the abuse she receives, since, in part, Cleo is so pliable and loving that you can’t immediately recognize her condition. She appears more as a trusted and caring nanny that anything else, until Cuarón very gradually helps us to perceive her working conditions, particularly when, at one moment, her youngest charge talks about an imaginary past life as an aged man before he was born, when he claims he was a air-pilot who died in a crash, laying down on a cement protrusion where Cleo is busy cleaning the family laundry, pretending to be dead.  
     One of the wonders of Cuarón’s film is that you never know what the next frame of the film might reveal. Suddenly, upon her youngest charge’s insistence that he has died in a previous life, the wonderful Cleo lays down on the same cement abutment, lying head to head to with the boy, insisting that she too is now dead. We immediately realize, however, that her notion of “dead” is something different from the boy’s imaginative rumination, that she is quite literally feeling so tired that she might as well be dead; and when she proclaims that it feels good, we comprehend that she has simply not ever had enough rest.
     The late-night arrival home of the master, the doctor Antonio, is like a surreal intrusion into their otherwise peaceful lives, as he slowly attempts to maneuver his large Galaxy car into the narrow confines of the courtyard parking space, the giant beast of a machine rolling over the dogshit left by Borros, even after Cleo has cleaned it up. We suddenly perceive that this man is a kind of monster, who demands that everything and everyone attend to him, and it is not surprising that in a scene soon after he pretends to escape to a business conference in Quebec from which he never returns, leaving his wife to have to deal with his exit by pretending to her loving children that he is simply on a longer retreat that he (or she) had expected.
      Distraught, she expresses her hurt in various ways, at one point crying out to her elderly mother, which the eldest of her children overhears, despite Cleo’s attempts to draw him away from his mother’s door. Cleo, herself, is blamed for the child’s sufferings, which he is now forced to keep secret from his brothers and sisters. We are nearing the territory of a Cocteau film.
     Is it any wonder that on their nights out, Cleo and Adela seek the delights of young men? Adela has a steady boyfriend in Pepe (Marco Graf), but Cleo is left with his more handsome, but unreliable cousin, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who draws her away from the movie to a rented room where he first, completely nakedly, reveals his impressive martial arts talents before joining her in bed.
     The result is disastrous, when Cleo soon after discovers that she has missed her period and is probably pregnant. We truly realize her boyfriend’s treachery when, soom after, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and never returns, leaving her to deal with the problems she now is facing, just like her mistress, all alone.
     Fortunately, both Sofia and her mother Teresa, despite their abuse of her, are sympathetic, taking the servant—quite disastrously, given Sofia’s driving skills—to the hospital, where the female doctor confirms Cleo’s pregnancy; and later, with Teresa in control, seeking out a crib into which their working “mother” might deposit her own new progeny.
      Yet here, again, Cuarón reveals that their timing is terribly bad, for that very afternoon the tragic Corpus Christi massacres of young protesting students occurs in the same neighborhood in which they happen to be shopping. In those shootings nearly 120 young people were shot down by paramilitary troops, including, in this case the young now-fascistic Fermín, who enters with others, the very shop where Cleo is attempting to buy her crib, to shoot down a couple of students who have attempted to escape the violence.
     In the stress, Cleo’s water breaks, and with Teresa and their driver, they attempt to escape to hospital safety, but trapped in traffic, are too late to save he maid’s unborn daughter. The director forces us to see the entire scene where Cleo loses the child, demanding we recognize what it truly means to lose a child in a stillborn birth, perhaps one of the most painful scenarios of film I have ever witnessed. It leaves Cleo, as even her charges proclaim, nearly mute.
     Yet the demands of family life are foremost, as Madame Sofia, who has now bought a new, smaller car, insists her children, with Cleo in attendance, drive down in one final Galaxy trip to a Veracruz beach—where she later admits to her children, she has been forced to travel in order to let her former husband ransack their home for whatever possessions he believes are his. The sad table-side admission of what has happened to their father devastates the eldest son while confusing his youngest siblings. Cleo can only look on, realizing her own losses, while hoping to help these children, whom she has basically raised, to gain some equilibrium.
     Their love of swimming in the ocean is their only relief; yet Cleo cannot swim and has never actually been in the ocean. She watches over her charges, taking the youngest of them away to the beach while looking back at the others, disobeying their mother’s orders, and floating out to sea impossible large waves. This brave woman has no other choice but to enter the water herself in an attempt to retrieve them before they drown.
     Amazingly she succeeds, bringing them all ashore just as their mother returns after checking the tires of the "beast" which will return them to their neighborhood Roma. Recognizing the miracle that has occurred, all of them gather on the beach like worn-out survivors—which they surely are—to gather in the love which feel for one another, Cleo finally admitting that she did not truly want her unborn child, with the children soon demanding that, as a family, they can now travel, a bit like the Roma gypsies, everywhere. They are no longer forced to remain in their topsy-turvy household.
     Yet the director simply takes them home, where, now that their father has left, has opened up other rooms, allowing them all to re-inhabit their own space, perhaps even to discover a kind of travel from room to room in their own household—a Disneyland beyond their dreams. Surely, Cleo, the savior of their lives, is no longer simply a servant, even as she climbs, in the last frame, to the roof to wash out the clothing they have worn on their most recent voyage.
     If there is little question that Cuarón’s lovely black-and-white cinematography is a bit too coy—as Howard pointed out to me, in one single tracking scene the director used hundreds of actors to  inhabit his restaurants and shops, and at other times everything was just too beautiful to be believed—I would argue that it is the director’s simple attempt to recreate a semi-autobiographical world in which he, as a child, was so immersed that determined his precise re-creation. In a true sense, this is not simply a “memory,” but a tribute to his own “Cleo” and to all the others who exist throughout Mexican and South American history who played the same roles. These women, mostly without children of their own, raised up entire richer families with deep love and caring. I remember eating a dinner with the Brazilian poet Horácio Costa whose childhood “nanny” had been brought to Sao Paulo to cook a delicious meal for us which he had loved as a child. I’m so sorry that I never got a chance to meet her. Here, at least, we do see the woman, however mutable (and mute) she is as a woman who raised this family, a kind of silent beauty who belongs in such a lovely silvery saga.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

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