Roma is the latest edition in what can be considered Cuarón’s prenatal trilogy, preceded by Children of Men (2006) and Gravity. This is a director obsessed with matters of pregnancy, nativity, and maturity. Cuarón’s is a cinema of deliverance; he’s a kind of auteurist stork bearing the good news of life.
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The title of Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film, Roma (2018), betrays a too-cute-by-half cleverness. It’s not just named after the neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up, Colonia Roma. It’s not just named after Federico Fellini’s 1972 masterwork, an homage to the city of his youth, Roma. And it’s not just named after the most culturally influential civilization in human history, Rome. It’s all these things. The film is painstakingly aware of its self (often self-admiringly so) as a product of Cuarón’s particular brand of filmmaking. Its visual delicacy, shot on high-resolution 65mm black-and-white film, is almost too pristine – like a porcelain antique that discourages one from getting too close. Might this explain why Cuarón offers his viewers periodic shots of dog shit, street riots, or, worse yet, a still-born baby? (Figure 1) These images momentarily shatter Roma’s own fragile artifice, defile Cuarón’s otherwise crystalline aesthetic. It is a highly self-reflexive film made by a director who seems at times too preoccupied by himself.
So it’s not coincidental that when Cuarón’s nanny-protagonist, Cleo, accompanies her client’s children to a movie theater, she walks in on a showing of John Sturges’s Marooned (1969), a sci-fi drama that follows several astronauts trapped in space. This brief interlude, for anyone who’s keeping score, cannot help but recall Cuarón’s own space epic, Gravity (2013), which, like Marooned, won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its simulation of human bodies weightlessly floating through space (Figures 2, 3). It’s a meta-cinematic advertisement for this modern-day auteur’s most successful film within his latest feature, which – like Roma is angling to repeat – won Cuarón scores of glitzy Best Director awards. Roma is thus about the beginnings of the man behind the camera, about the origins of this “cinematic intelligence.” It is as much a biopic as it is a birth-pic. In this way, Roma is the latest edition in what can be considered Cuarón’s prenatal trilogy, preceded by Children of Men (2006) and Gravity. This is a director obsessed with matters of pregnancy, nativity, and maturity. Cuarón’s is a cinema of deliverance; he’s a kind of auteurist stork bearing the good news of life.
Pregnancy, Children of Men
The year is 2027, and the world’s youngest person – Diego Ricardo – has been killed. He was eighteen, murdered outside a bar in Buenos Aires by an obsessive fan. Yet Ricardo never really had a “life” as such. Like a child-celebrity, Ricardo rocketed to stardom after being the last person on Earth to be born in a world where humans strangely have lost their ability to procreate. The whole world feels the pain of burying this child. Everyone momentarily becomes a parent – a failed parent ashamed of having neglected to protect their young and, in turn, themselves. This is how Cuarón’s post-apocalyptic film Children of Men begins. The “desert of the real” famously described by Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) is literalized. The human world is rendered utterly barren. Universally infertile, humankind is plunged into its twilight hours. Impotence, Cuarón suggests, begets dystopia. There’s no point in continuing if there is no posterity to continue for.
Whether intentionally or incidentally, Cuarón proffers his own philosophy of history in Children of Men. We make something of ourselves now for those who proceed us later – a pay-it-forward notion of progress that, in fact, makes a strong case for doing more to combat climate change, that is, to stem a looming catastrophe fueled by those of us in the now threatening the heirs of tomorrow. Cuarón himself, peppering his film with the images of environmental ruin – smoggy street views, urban decay, never-ending garbage fires – seems to acknowledge as much (Figure 4). The global infertility crisis is, indeed, suspected to be the result of excessive gamma rays and pollution. Others blame divine vengeance. Whatever the calamity’s origins, the whole world has become a kind of refugee camp trying to escape from itself – save England, where Cuarón’s film unfolds.
After his protagonist, Theo Faron, is kidnapped by The Fishes, a paramilitary organization violently committed to the rights of immigrants at war with the British government, he agrees to escort a young refugee, Kee, to acquire transit papers. Soon embroiled in an internecine conflict among The Fishes, Theo learns Kee is pregnant and – risking his own life –vows to smuggle her out of Great Britain to an underground scientific collective called The Human Project operating in the Azores, an Edenic-like archipelago in the Atlantic, where human life perhaps could be reinvigorated. The film, based on P. D. James’s eponymous novel, is rife with religious allusions; it’s a dystopian nativity story full of its own refugees, wise man, and monstrous authorities. Kee’s pregnancy, after all, is revealed to Theo in a barn, a modern-day manger backdropped by hymnal music (Figure 5). For Theo, suddenly, the world becomes pregnant with hope. Like an early Christian martyr, Theo risks his life for a cause greater than himself against in-fighting rebels, marauding terrorists, and hostile police. It’s not by chance that Saint Theodor, in the Hellenic and Latin traditions, has come to be venerated as a warrior saint.
Unlike a parable, however, Children of Men is not a self-sure message designed to indoctrinate from on high. The film lacks a moralizing dimension entirely. Its ending, with Theo losing consciousness as “The Tomorrow” approaches – the vessel on which Kee will be stowed out to Portugal’s islands – is as ambiguous as the cause of Cuarón’s pandemic of infertility. The film, without prologue or epilogue, is left deliberately unclear, as narratively as it is spiritually equivocal. It’s about the voyage rather than the terminus. “There’s a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations,” Cuarón once said. “Cinema is a hostage of narrative.” Kee even cracks a joke at one point that she’s a virgin. The laughter incited by her wisecrack is, indeed, Cuarón’s laughter from behind the camera. It’s a droll polemic against dogma of all stripes. In Children of Men, Cuarón casts doubt on anyone promising to hold tomorrow’s answers – whether they be militant revolutionaries or bloodless politicians. “My baby won’t be a flag,” Kee cries. The future, in Cuarón’s hands, is nothing if not unknowable.
Theo, a former liberal insurrectionary – this “rebel without a cause” – Theo has replaced his bygone zealotry of his youth with a new kind of pessimistic certitude. “Even if they discovered the cure for infertility,” he says, “it doesn’t matter. The world went to shit.” Unshakable optimism is replaced by an intransient pessimism or, in other words, revolutionary messianism with cynical nihilism. Yet, upon meeting Kee, Theo lets his otherwise doctrinaire impulses give way to a new ideology, a kind of non-utopian utopianism. He comes to realize that there is no silver bullet, no grand theory capable of solving history’s dilemmas. The world is pregnant with promise only if we let it be; the sum of who we will be is who we are already; today is the mother of tomorrow.
Thus, by rejecting idealism and nihilism, Theo starts pushing for a better world, inch by inch. The life of one pregnant refugee becomes as valuable as the fate of the entire world. Her child won’t be a messiah, Theo concedes, because there’s no such thing. The future is contingent, relational, dependent on human decisions; a godless construction. Theo becomes a kind of “doctor without borders,” agitating not for some abstract notion of redemption but in spite of it. The world is made up of people, not ideas – sufferers, not symbols; micro deeds have macro consequences. The sight of Kee’s baby that seemingly quiets all of England lays bare for all that, when confronted by a worldwide crisis, humans turned against themselves (Figure 6). We failed in our role as caretakers of one another. It takes more to be a parent than a pregnancy.
Similarly, a film that ends happily-ever-after, for Cuarón, is itself a statement of misplaced faith, a false promise of salvation. The world is a far more complicated place. It’s the goal of art to see not in black-and-white, but in shades of gray. The future is nothing if not pregnant with uncertainty. We are its makers – its stewards, in the here and now. In Children of Men, we are our own deliverance.
The references to birth in Cuarón’s follow-up film, Gravity, seem almost too obvious to mention. The film begins with its astronaut-protagonists bobbing around the Hubble Space Telescope in zero gravity like clumsy toddlers without fully developed motor skills. The main character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is even attached to what looks like an umbilical cord. Later, after escaping a maelstrom of space debris, Dr. Stone curls up into the fetal position while she weightlessly floats through the docking compartment of the International Space Station as if in amniotic fluid (Figure 7). Devastated by the loss of her interstellar companion, Dr. Stone momentarily returns to the protection afforded by the womb. She then attempts suicide while listening to a lullaby. It’s a baby’s cry – a reminder of her own late daughter – that rouses her survivalist instincts. Eventually re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, Dr. Stone plunges into the sea and slowly staggers onto land just as the earliest organisms might have from the ocean deep. She slowly stands upright, thus completing her transformation from an amphibian into a primate (Figure 8). In Gravity, Cuarón restages the birth of humankind – from its cosmic gestation to its earthbound ascendency. The orchestral music in the film’s final episode relays the triumph of man’s first steps on land. Indeed, the long takes of Earth’s surface that Cuarón peppers throughout his film echo the opening sequence of the BBC’s Planet Earth, a documentary series that explores terrestrial life’s emergence (Figure 9).
Gravity, then, reverses the trajectory of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which recounts man’s development from impressionable humanoids into sentient computer systems. Cuarón reenacts the (de)evolution of the human by way of the cosmos to the primordial swamp. Though Cuarón invites such a reading – “In this case, it’s about … the Darwinian chart in the end … the primordial soup,” he said in an interview – the film’s recourse to primordium rewards a deeper, perhaps less intentional, interpretation. It thematizes our origins not only in a biological sense, but also in a cinematic sense. For all its cutting-edge flourishes – special effects, big-name Hollywood actors, and 3D graphics – it is a work of pre-cinema. The film’s plotless focus on mobilized human bodies, complemented by its reliance on technologic illusionism (i.e., zero-gravity simulations), align it with the earliest experiments of cinematic expression.
In his watershed article “The Cinema of Attractions,” Tom Gunning argues that an aesthetic of astonishment and self-deception fueled the rise of the modern motion picture. The earliest filmgoers were not, as is commonly believed, unsophisticated rubes who lacked the perceptual sophistication to distinguish between “real” and “reel” images. Think of the lore surrounding the petrified viewers watching the Lumière Brother’s L’Arrivée d’un train (1896), those who supposedly believed that an actual train might burst through the screen and steamroll the audience. “It is terrifying to see, but … Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on screen,” Maxim Gorky said in 1896, “It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered cones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall.…” Notice, however, Gorky’s provisional language: “seems as though.” Rather than “believing” what they were seeing – rather than mistaking image for reality – early filmgoers knowingly indulged the fantasy of motion pictures.
The sensation of watching an otherwise still image spring to life, be born into mobility, was such a feat of technology that these early spectators elected to suspend their belief in “reality” for the purposes of entertainment; they let themselves be shocked. The pleasures of self-deception.
Similarly, in Gravity, Cuarón relies on a spectacle of astonishment achieved through digital innovation that could incite the same sort of amazement that fueled the rise of the motion picture. Zero-gravity simulations. deafening silences and noise. cosmic visuals.d meteor showers – the audiences of Gravity couldn’t believe their eyes (and ears) after encountering Cuarón’s take on a space opera. We don’t mistake the “truth” of Gravity as such, but we allow ourselves to be deceived by its otherworldly visuals. This work about evolution, ironically, reveals that we, as filmgoers, haven’t evolved at all since cinema’s earliest days. We remain the same sort of visual pleasure-seekers waiting to be astounded by modern techniques of cinematic stagecraft. Gravity is, indeed, a document of primordial cinema, a specimen from the filmic swamp out of which motion pictures fitfully emerged, out of which the modern filmgoer was born.
What’s more, Gravity’s focus on mobilized human bodies – drifting, bobbing, colliding bodies – recalls the more sensational “attractions” of early cinema (Figure 10). A founding father of cinema, Georges Méliès, after acquiring the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, made a name for himself as an often-macabre illusionist who specialized in dismembering and manipulating the human body. One of his best-known “tricks” was called the Recalcitrant Decapitated Man, in which a professor’s head was cut off in the middle of a lecture only to continue speaking uninterruptedly. The arrival of cinematic technology at the turn of the century – Méliès attended a private showing of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph in 1895 – offered the illusionist the possibility to pioneer his trickery on a dynamic new medium. The plasticity of the cinematic image afforded limitless opportunity to transfigure, transform, and tear human bodies asunder. The filmic “cut,” indeed, allowed Méliès to “cut” up his own onscreen personages; see, for example, his 1901 Dislocation mystérieuse. In this light, Méliès was a kind of sorcerer-scientist deploying cutting-edge technology to transform the human body to the astonishment of early filmgoers.
Likewise, in Gravity, Cuarón dwells on the human body, sending it hurling through space, to dazzle his audiences. He deploys computer generated imagery to create thrilling visual effects of free-floating humans in a kind of Méliès’s-inspired trick show of cinematic illusionism. The mobilized bodies of Gravity, it seems, overcome gravity itself. Cuarón’s opening thirteen-minute shot – his camera sinuously soaring through the cosmos as it scans his upside-down astronauts – is a breathtaking example of how popular cinema is still fueled by an aesthetic of astonishment. It’s not coincidental that Méliès’s most famous work is A Trip to the Moon (1902), an early sci-fi epic that anticipates Cuarón’s Gravity. The film, then, is a meta-commentary on the birth of the motion picture, from Cuarón to Méliès, to the moon and back again. Dr. Stone’s upright body at the end of Gravity is an image of nativity – the rise (literally) not only of the human, but of the modern filmgoer standing on the shores of cinema. The visuals that drew spectators to theaters a century ago are still those drawing us there today. We’re still looking for filmmakers to take us to the moon (Figures 11, 12).
The sort of revolutionary movement in which Theo of Children of Men was said to have participated is the backdrop of Cuarón’s latest feature, Roma. In 1968, impelled by disgruntled students inspired by the global protests of the late 1960s, especially in France, Mexico descended into civil strife between young, urban insurgents and implacable state authorities who, in October 1968, coordinated a mass killing of hundreds of students and civilians ten days before the start of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to quell the rising dissent. These events electrified the Mexican national consciousness, especially considering that the carnage continued in the form of a “dirty war,” that is, a rightist (CIA-backed) crackdown on left-wing activists well into the 1970s. A pivotal event in this campaign of extrajudicial executions and orchestrated disappearances was the Corpus Christi Massacre. In June 1971, a covert militia burst onto student demonstrators in Mexico City and killed over 130 protestors. These bloody events cast a shadow over the future Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón, who grew up only blocks away from the terror of that day.
Yet the opening shots of Roma do not announce a narrative roiling with revolutionary violence. Quite the opposite. Its first images show a stone-tiled floor being washed over with cleaning fluid. The sudsy waves, which, like a languid sea, lapse across the cinematic frame before slowly receding, even leaving behind a residue of foam, convey a feeling of lethargy. A plane is seen floating overhead in a puddle’s reflection. This palpable sense of languor is furthered by Cuarón’s unhurried camerawork as he dwells on the architecture of a sunny outdoor courtyard. These uninterrupted, durational shots recall those of Gravity. The cinematography in Roma’s opening sequence is, indeed, weightless. Cuarón’s camera proceeds to drift through the interior spaces of a posh, if a bit untidy, home (Figure 13). It’s a zero-gravity tour of the filmmaker’s childhood residence. A young cleaning woman, Cleo, speaking Mixtec, is seen putting things back in order before her (whiter, Spanish-speaking) “children” return from school. The politics of Roma are clear, but Cuarón chooses not to stress it in anything more than a whisper. Instead, for over an hour, the director paints a picture of quotidian family life: dinners, quarrels, rainstorms, and trips uninterrupted by the chaos unfolding outside. This is not the Mexico City of 1968.
That is, Cuarón’s is not the dystopian caricature of postwar Mexico that dominates the popular imagination, one inhabited by right-wing thugs, underground militias, and torture chambers. Those images are observed from afar, literally through a pane of glass (Figure 14). And how could it be otherwise? A historical “event,” as it is lived, is never as momentous as it is retrospectively perceived. Life goes on – especially if, like Cuarón, you’re born into the upper echelons of social privilege. His father was a nuclear physicist working for the United Nations, not a bad gig during the Cold War. For its part, then, Roma is about the banality of history, those sundry events that don’t necessarily define a historical milieu but nevertheless shape the attitudes and moods of its inhabitants. In the pristine black-and-white hues of Cuarón’s memory, Roma is a reconstruction of a forgotten everyday.
Yet the very word “Roma” has a two-pronged connotation. On the one hand, it denotes the majesty of imperial might, the longevity of a seemingly invincible society; on the other, it conjures notions of calamitous collapse, a society too drunk on its own self-image to recognize the ground crumbling beneath it. In a word, childhood. A child is too wrapped up in the pleasures of being a child to recognize the rapidity with which youth disappears. The illusion of everlasting grandeur is precisely what makes childhood childlike. Everyone’s adolescence, indeed, is thseir own personal Rome. Yet that illusion inevitably shatters in a transitional break called “maturity.” In this light, then, Roma is not only about the “Rome” of Cuarón’s youth, a seemingly perfect childhood nourished by the unconditional love of his nanny, but also about “Rome’s fall”; in other words, Cuarón’s first glimpses into adulthood, into the painful realities swirling around him from which he was so painstakingly cocooned in his urban palace on Tepeji Street.
Indeed, halfway through Roma, Cuarón captures the decadence slowly eroding his idealized childhood at a New Year’s party outside of Mexico City in a hacienda full of trophy animals, mayhem, and merrymaking (Figure 15). This is a picture of Rome before the fall, of a society sinking under the weight of its own self-indulgence. The forest fire that these partygoers accidentally ignite “reads” as a metaphor for their own obliviousness to the world outside, roiling from inequality and injustice, that they helped create. It anticipates the fall of Cuarón’s Rome. The series of events that precede this celebration – paternal abandonment, Cleo’s failed pregnancy, their neighborhood’s revolutionary convulsion, and a near-death experience on a beach – indeed, sharply contrast the previous half of Cuarón’s film. These are the moments – the slices of life – that impinge on the simplicity afforded by youth. By the end of Roma, Cuarón’s alter ego, a little boy named Pepe, is not necessarily grown up, but he’s gotten enough of a glimpse into the painful realities of life to know that there’s more to it than being a child (Figure 16).
Hence, when Cuarón’s father later returns to reclaim his furniture, he drastically alters the character of their house, leaving the once familiar spaces of Cuarón’s childhood drastically altered. Things now promise to be different; there is a “before” and an “after.” Yet the plane continually seen flying overhead in Roma is a marker of continuity between that break between childhood and adulthood. The world was as it is, full of banalities and complexities, of plane rides and revolutionary struggles. It’s not that Cuarón loses his youth, but that he comes to see it differently. The plane suggests that much of the world remains the same as we age, but it’s our perception of it that changes. These layers of perception, in turn, make these things appear foreign and forgotten. “When I was older,” Pepe continually says in Roma. It’s an image of Cuarón looking back at himself, whose childhood doppelgänger is “looking ahead” at him, a perceptually confused statement that builds bridges between the past, the present, and the future. As in Children of Men, Cuarón cannot resist philosophizing on what it means to be alive. After all, he did major in philosophy as a student in Mexico City in the 1970s (Figure 17).
It’s not surprising, then, that the focus of Roma is not Cuarón himself. If anything, Pepe is a marginal character. The protagonist of this film is Pepe’s live-in nanny, Cleo, who, in actuality, Cuarón knew as Liboria Rodríguez, Libo. His elegiac look-back on childhood ironically displaces himself. It follows Cleo’s day-to-day chores, her wayward love affair, and her crisis of motherhood; rarely do we see Cuarón’s on-screen avatar. This sort of self-effacement is a fundamental marker of maturity. A key part of “growing up” is recognizing that one’s world is not contingent on oneself; that is, individuals must decenter their own subjectivity from their perception of the world before being able to participate fully in it. We are not, the adage goes, the center of the universe. In Roma, Cuarón thus elides himself. He acknowledges that those who surrounded him in those years of childhood bliss – his grandmother, his nanny, his driver – had their own stories, their own aspirations, their own troubles, which, as a child, he not only failed to recognize, but was shielded from recognizing out of fear that his innocence might be “robbed.” Cuarón lets the story of his youth play out through someone else’s life; his subjectivity emerges only for the viewer in the form of wide-angle shots, long takes, and pristine images. Yet the narrative’s focus is not Cuarón’s. In Roma, then, Cuarón foregrounds those forces that shaped his childhood, that fueled his maturation into a modern-day auteur. The film is an homage to Libo, who, indeed, gave Cuarón his own Rome.
With Roma, then, Cuarón brings his prenatal trilogy full circle. He began in Children of Men with a mediation on pregnancy – on what it means to bring life into the world and, more importantly, how such life is to be nurtured. Then, in Gravity, Cuarón examines the birth of humankind, not simply in a biological sense, but in a filmic sense. The movie isn’t about pregnancy, but nativity; it probes the origins out of which cinema emerged and, in the process, reveals that we, as filmgoers, have hardly evolved beyond those thrill-seeking spectators of the early twentieth century who “gave birth” to the modern motion picture. Finally, in Roma, Cuarón uses his own childhood to explore what it means to grow up. He suggests that the realities that eventually lead us out of childhood and into adulthood are present from the day we are born, but, if we are lucky enough to be cared for, especially by someone as selfless as Libo, then we are shielded from those harsh realities. The fall of Rome can be delayed by love. The recent work of this modern-day auteur, then, is a meditation on the earliest stages of human development. Like a stork, Cuarón delivers the news of life, inviting his audiences to reflect on their own histories, from gestation to maturation – their own Romas.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films’ DVDs.