Readers Write In #291: Learning Cinema by watching Roma

Posted on October 31, 2020

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(by Shiva Prasad)

Whether we like it or not, our lives are moulded by society. Few things are in our control, while most things are most definitely not. We are a tiny part of a bigger scheme of things. Things are not designed to always go our way in this extremely complex system of coexistence. Especially when we haven’t hit the genetic lottery in race and gender, or the social lottery in class and hierarchy. What then can we really hold on to, in this arduous journey called life? What then is really important? With all the inequalities plaguing our lives, Why are we most often blind to it? Why do we feel entitled? Whom do we owe this entitlement to? These are the themes and questions that came to my mind after watching Roma.

The films tell the story of an indigenous domestic help Cleo. It is played with such real empathy by Yalitza Aparico, that the truth of her emotions leaps out of the performance. It is never theatrical, the settings often are, but the performance never is. She takes care of all the chores around the upper middle class, privileged, caucasian household. But more importantly, she is an integral part of the four children’s upbringing. She is like a mother to them. It is also a story of the children’s mother Sofía. Marina de Tavira’s performance brings out the unsaid, about the turmoil she goes through emotionally, during a tough phase of her marriage.

Alfonso Cuaron painstakingly recreates the scenes, his childhood home, the streets, the people and the whole Mexico city of 1970 from his memories. We get to witness, not just how he saw it then, but with a deeper empathy and understanding on how he remembers, views and feels about it now. He has written, directed, did cinematography, co-edited and co-produced this movie with such nuance that elevates it into an absolute intricate beauty.

The movie opens with a tight close shot of square tiles arranged diagonally. The light tiles are grouped together in fours, alternating with the dark tiles which are grouped together in fours. They could be a metaphor for the different ethnic and racial groups existing side by side, creating this interweaving pattern, called family in the micro sense or society in the macro sense. Then the credits start to roll. We hear the sounds of sweeping and cleaning water gushing towards the drain. In one seminal moment of pure cinema, the water becomes stagnant for a moment and reflects the sky above, a flight crosses exactly at that moment through the reflected sky (The flight metaphors don’t stop here, they reappear in important moments of the movie). Life on earth is capable of such transcendence to higher beauty, but these moments are always fleetingly transient and require a static stoic outlook. The camera then tilts up from the ground and reveals Cleo as she goes about continuing to do her chores with grace. In a series of serene shots, we are introduced to the house, the fours kids, the mother, the other domestic helps, the grandmother, the daily routines of the family, and rhythm of their life.

It is one of those movies that gets deeper and deeper, with subsequent experiencing. My own filmmaking ambition was somewhere long in the horizon, when I first saw it, during its initial release on Netflix, a couple of years ago. Now, when filmmaking is getting a lot closer to me as my calling, I saw the movie again last night, I ended up watching it again today. I was blown away, again and again. The visuals, soundscape, the metaphors are so specifically designed, that allows the film to keep an objective eye on the proceedings, thereby forcing the audience to participate in the movie and deriving meaning. As Alfonso Cuaron puts it, we as an audience, are like a ghost in the middle of all the life happening. With no real finger pointing, no hand holding and not passing judgements. He uses no usual cinematic tools (like camera angles, like focal distance of the subjects, like editing to a perspective, like background score) to manipulate the audience, thereby never being subjective.

So, how then does he say his views and let us feel the discrimination and inequality? He does that masterfully by sculpting the screen-time with his screenplay, by precisely editing to show us what is important. With metaphors, he juxtaposes the personal and the political, the characters and their environment, the micros and the macros. So every visual on the screen, every sound and every scene adds to the emotion and adds to the whole, thereby delivering his statement on things.

The film is filled with gorgeous long takes, but the camera never dollies in or out, and hardly ever tilts up or down to manipulate the audience to a subjective feeling. The camera movement is always either lateral, like a stroll on the streets, like the passing of time; or rotational, like a gentle twist in the torso, like a swivel to complete a perspective. Shot in widescreen 65mm, vividly clean and digitally majestic Black and White, the visuals are stunningly surreal, dreamlike and otherworldly. There is no manipulative music either. But instead, we get a rich Dolby Atmos soundscape, which adds layers of reality to these intently painted visuals.

The close ups are always reserved for objects, almost never for people. The first time we see the close ups and fast editing between shots are for Antonio’s introduction. He is the husband, father of the kids and the head of the household. He comes home early from work. He incessantly honks for the family’s attention to open the door. He drives a car that is too big to park in the courtyard (The very same courtyard, we were introduced to in the first scene). We don’t see his physical self introduced for a while. We see his actions. We see his hands holding a cigarette and changing gears, side view mirror getting squeezed by the walls, a water pipe obstructing the  headlights. He precisely maneuvers the car with music blasting from the car speakers, but he still can’t outmaneuver the dog shit. He is the only one in the film that has a problem with it, even the kids don’t ever step on it. We get the idea, his aspirations are too big to be contained with this family, his dreams are being suffocated by his own responsibility. The fast cuts between these close-ups upsets the rhythm created so far in the movie, and we feel the loss of serenity in the house. He finally parks the car. The whole family is waiting to greet him at the doorstep. We see a crown logo in the front of the car approaching towards the camera. He feels like a king. Even the comedy show they watch together later as a family, after dinner, has something dialogue about His Excellency.

There is discrimination is everywhere in the movie. Alfonso Cuaron uses the stairs in the house to stage some of these fantastically. Cleo gets a call from Fermin (they have just set up a date). She is just back picking up Pepe from Kindergarten. She wants her moment of privacy and she asks Adela and Pepe to move away. While Adela says okay but wants to know more, Pepe the youngest of the four kids says “Don’t talk to me like this”, as he walks up the stairs to his room and looks down at her one moment. It is just so casual, It is not dramatic, it is just a matter of fact. Cleo doesn’t bat an eyelid and asks him to just walk to his room, she is in complete acceptance of who she is, in this place. The kid adores her though, he is almost inseparable from her, throughout the whole movie. When Antonio and the whole family watch a TV show together, Cleo after a long day’s work sits on the floor besides the family. One of the kids puts an arm around her. She enjoys the moment for a second, before Sofia asks her to bring tea for the Doctor (Antonio, her husband). Now Pepe screams that he wants her to stay, but the other kid shushes him and says she will be back in a bit. She immediately gets up and takes all the dirty dishes and walks down the stairs from the living room. It was like she was a part of the family for one moment and the next moment she isn’t.

Every time a male character tries to flex his masculinity in the movie, the scene turns out to be comical. Like the flexing is such a joke, especially from these men. Fermin, Cleo’s boyfriend, jumps around doing martial arts with a shower rod, naked. But, she can’t hide her smile. He then proceeds to get closer to Cleo, who is sitting in his bed. Until now, it seems like Cleo has made peace with her life. She tells her friend Adela, the other maid, that the family cares for them very well and feels even grateful. She has a mini music player that she sings along with, while doing her chores. When the alarm goes off, she wakes up immediately to start her day before everyone else. She takes care of the birds, the dog and sings to children to wake them up ever so gently. She doesn’t take to heart or complain to her friend (They speak their native tongue Mixtec between themselves, which their employers don’t understand) the reprimands from the family. Now, back in Fermin’s bed, in one of very few shots of Cleo alone on the screen, the painting on the wall behind her appears skewed. In a film where visuals are composed immaculately, we feel the uneasiness, it feels like something is wrong. Fermin then proceeds to get intimate with Cleo.

The discrimination is not just against Cleo in the house. It is not just based in race, but also class, profession, gender and nationality. One of the kids says his gringo cousin makes him feel like he stinks. One of the guys in the family New Years party, forces himself upon Sofia and says he knows she needs this. When she dismisses, he retorts by saying she isn’t beautiful anyway. Fermin, though being extremely poor (he drinks the left over coco-cola after everyone leaves in his introductory scene), when confronted by Cleo with the news that she is pregnant with his child, calls her names and says she is a fucking servant. Sofi, the only girl child of the four children, is often withheld snacks because that will make her fat. Sofia gets drunk one night and tells Cleo that, “we women are always alone no matter that they say”. Benita, one of the maids at Hacienda says of the other city maids, “They act pricier than their employers” (This scene also uses the stairs that go down deep to show the differential class system). The rich guys keep sipping champagne, counting down for New Years, bursting firecrackers and watching the spectacle, while the forest is on fire and the poor guys are forming a human chain to quench it. People just don’t deem each other as equals. They always try to find a hierarchy. We also hear of a lot of land disputes. A dog is said to be killed for the rich guys’ land dispute. A son is killed in a poor guys’ land dispute. Cleo’s mother’s land in the village is grabbed by the government.

Sofia is just a victim of the circumstances. She screams at Cleo for not cleaning the dog shit, when Antonio stamps on it before he goes away (Like a clean courtyard is going to save their marriage). She is not screaming at Antonio when he is leaving. She only tries to manipulate his decision, by delaying Pepe to the school and saying goodbye to his father. Later, she asks Pepe to draw something sentimental and write Come Home Papa in a letter (the last child mostly has the maximum leverage). Her anger at him is vented out, only by crashing his huge car on the road, and later, in the house. She isn’t screaming at the friend who tries to force himself on her. Her anger is often misguided, it’s not at the people who have caused her pain, but it is with the people, who are also on some level, a victim of it. Sofia is never visibly angry and never shouts out at frustration to anyone except the kids and Cleo. With the kids, she soon realizes she has done something wrong and apologizes. Cleo and the car never quite get that apology though. Her relationship with Cleo gets a beautiful arc in the movie. They go from Cleo sitting on the side of the chair on the floor in the initial phase, to sitting besides her when she breaks the news of her pregnancy, to Cleo traveling with the family for vacation and not working, to telling Cleo how much she and the family loves her, and feeling grateful for having Cleo in their life.

In the opening scene, the closing scene and a few times in between, the flights keep coming at important places in the movie. It appears in the movie that runs in the theatre that Cleo and Fermin go in, on their next date. Cleo first suggests to Fermin that she might be pregnant. The timing of the dialogues and what happens to the flights on the screen is exquisite. It almost runs like a parallel commentary. The next time we see them is in the scene where Professor Zovek trains the Los Halcones. He says, “The only miracle resides in your mind and your will”. He performs his great act after a lot of build up – blindfolded one leg balancing. Everyone is slightly confused, nobody is screaming in surprise, it doesn’t feel like a great act, it doesn’t feel like magic, but it is every bit as hard to do. Nobody is able to do that except Cleo. The flights go at the exact moments when Professor Zovek first introduces the act. And a flight crosses again on screen as Cleo is able to do the blindfold one leg balancing (while being pregnant, nonetheless). It indicates a higher human potential and an evolved being, among us, the regular people. And a flight comes again, later in the final scene, more about that later.

There are also astronauts in the movie. Though their exact meaning, I did not grasp in the few viewings. They have to mean something. There are two identical shots of astronauts, one kid in a fancy astronaut suit walking among puddles, while a few kids and a couple of dogs are running through the frame. The adult men and a woman (gringo woman don’t apparently count), shooting their guns at bottles in the woods. There is another shot, where humans are flung across from canons for fun. A kid with a cardboard astronauts helmet walks in a puddle of mud, with a few kids and a couple of dogs running across the frame, in a poor neighborhood. The direction of the camera movement, and the directions of movement are opposite on both these shots (one moves from right to left, the other moves from left to right). Maybe, the astronauts dress denotes the aspiration and future of the kids. Maybe, it means the divide between the rich and the poor is getting wider in opposing directions. Maybe it is the politics, that the right wing and left wing are moving farther away from the center.

In another scene, Toño (one of the four kids) is adamant about watching a movie about the astronauts. He doesn’t think the family will get the movie, and is not really enthusiastic about watching it together with them, he even asks the family, do they even know the title means. While on their way to the movie, after a small fight, he and Cleo chance upon Antonio and his mistress having fun and enjoying themselves on the streets. The name of the movie is “Marooned”.

The major political Mise-en-scène happens as Cleo and Teresa (Sofia’s Mother) go out to shop for a cradle for Cleo’s unborn child. The Corpus Christi Massacre breaks out. The state sponsored terror group Los Halcones (trained by the Americans and the Koreans, and apparently is something similar to Olympics) hits out against the student protesters. We see a few of them running into the same furniture store and guns down a person. There is commotion and we see a gun pointed at Cleo, Teresa says a prayer and comes in between the gun and Cleo. The camera moves back and Cleo is frightened and shocked. We are revealed the killer after we take in Cleo’s shock. It is Fermin. He is wearing a shirt which has a love symbol with a small family cartoon inside it. Cleo’s water breaks and she is rushed to a hospital.

There are few shots that reveal this movie is not just about Cleo and the family. It is also about Mexico and its people and politics. First one is when Pepe and Cleo pretend to be dead, for a game on the rooftop. The camera lifts up gently from them and rotates to show all the domestic help in the neighboring houses washing the clothes and cleaning the dirt. This movie is about them. We see a shot of a grandmother and granddaughter seeing new born children, in the hospital, in anticipation of their new addition to the family. An earthquake disrupts their joy, they kneel down there and pray. This movie is also about them. During the riots when Cleo is rushed to the hospital we see an image of a young woman crying out loud with the head of a dead young man on her lap. This movie is about them too.

There is a lot of foreshadowing and talk of death in the film. The kids talk of a soldier, killing a kid as he got mad. Cleo tells Pepe that she likes being dead, just after a pretend game. When Cleo goes for her first visit to the hospital, during her pregnancy there is an earthquake. It ends with a shot of debris on top of an incubator. Alfonso Cuaron cuts and opens the next shot with a cemetery. In another scene, Cleo is given an alcoholic drink at a New Years party. When she is raising a toast for the good health of the child, somebody trips over the glass and it lays down shattered. But, Alfonso Cuaron masterfully directs and edits the scene in the hospital, after Cleo’s pregnancy gets complicated and the team of doctors moves her into surgery (We see Antonio running away from responsibility, again). We cut to an empty hospital lobby, we hear a woman screaming in pain, then we hear a cry of a baby. We usually expect the scene to be cut now, and show us Cleo and the new born baby. He subverts our own expectations against us. The shot doesn’t cut there, The hospital crew barge opens the door in the lobby with Cleo. Then we follow into the surgery room to witness what is one of the most harrowing scenes of the movie.

Natural elements add to the story telling of the movie. There is a forest fire. There is an earthquake. There is a hail storm. This not only informs the seasonal shift, but also the emotional shift, the atmosphere, the mood and the ambience on the story telling front. The climatic storm in the beach is the most beautiful and most impactful of them all, where Cleo (who doesn’t know how to swim) saves the lives of two of the kids. It almost feels like another chance to live and experience life. In one uninterrupted shot, the camera moves from the beach into the chaotic sea and comes back for a warm embrace back at the beach. The whole family gets together into this climatic emotional moment, where they hug each other and reveal how much they love Cleo. Cleo finally gets really emotional, opens up and cries. She confesses she never wanted her child to be born. We now get to know that the child was a girl. You can’t stop but wonder, how bad the situation must be. When Cleo, who is such a beautiful mother to these four kids, who aren’t biologically hers, doesn’t want a girl of her own. It is not out of spite for Fermin, she says “that poor thing”. She doesn’t spell out any more reasons. But, by now we know. We definitely feel her plight. Is she a metaphor for Mexico, all the developing countries or the whole world?

Everything in life is a cycle. Fermin leaves her stating he wants to go the restroom when she reveals she is pregnant with a baby. He asks if she wants an ice cream. Then later in the movie, Sofia, Cleo and the kids eat ice cream, after Sofia reveals to the kids her separation with their father (Under a giant crab sculpture, does that mean something?). There is a big wedding happening with bands playing music, as the family sadly and silently eat their ice creams. Then, there is a marching band playing music when Antonio first walks out of the relationship (we definitely feel a pain in the scene, but don’t just know for sure yet) citing a conference in Canada. Later, we hear the same marching band again, when Sofia, Cleo and the children are back from their significant beach vacation (after she plans to get rid of her husband’s damaged old big car, literally and metaphorically). This time the mood is more positive. Finally, when we get back in the house, the kids explain to their grandmother how Cleo helped save their life. Then one of them immediately asks her for a Banana shake. She descends the stairs again, maybe she is still not an equal family yet. But, in the eyes of the director now, she walks and goes outside to the courtyard. The camera movement mirrors the opening shot of tilting from the ground to the floor level. Now, the closing shot tilts up from the ground level to the sky. She walks up the stairs, A flight crosses again. She has transcended and evolved into a higher being, among all these mere mortals.