Even the languid pace Cuarón uses throughout the film seems to want to elevate the (feminine and domestic) virtue of soul-nurturing stillness over the (masculine) trait of destructive freneticism. Some shots of the family home, painstakingly recreated to match Cuarón’s memories, are held so long without any movement in them that they could be “stills.” Satisfying his own sense of nostalgia, which is after all the experience of deriving pleasure from being stuck in the past, Cuarón seems to insist that forward motion is not all that great; that there is virtue in staying put. While the film’s villainous male characters flee domestic constraint, Cuarón asserts himself as a man who wants to slow down, who wants to stay.
* * *
Roma is a masterly work of art, composed by a highly acclaimed and well-funded darling of the global film community at the height of his powers. Its Mexican-born writer-director-cinematographer, Alfonso Cuaròn has spent nearly two decades honing his craft, traveling constantly between his London home, the international film festival circuit, and film sets around the world. Roma, it seems to me, suggests that Cuarón is not entirely at ease with his jet-set globetrotting status, particularly in an era defined at least in part by border walls and entrenched socioeconomic inequality. Roma is many things: an expat’s rumination on his roots; a loving tribute to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Lido; a memorial to the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in which he grew up in the 1970s; and a beautiful digital reimagination of neorealist cinema. Related to all of these, and without being overtly political, Roma is also a meditation – shot through with Cuarón’s “own guilt about social dynamics,” as he put it in a Variety interview with Kristopher Tapley – on the social, economic, and geographic mobility of some set against the immobility of others, determined in large part by race, class, and gender. This theme of unequal mobility is pronounced in Cuarón’s ubiquitous use of cars, trucks, busses, planes, and even rocket ships. And though Cuarón singled out racial and class inequality as sources of his guilt, and though he clearly uses modes of transport symbolically to comment on these in Roma, he also uses them to comment on gender inequality, on the ways that men move and women (have no choice but to) stay.
From the opening sequence, Cuarón announces that Roma will meditate on mobility and immobility. To hypnotic effect, the camera holds still for some three minutes on sudsy water washing repeatedly over floor tiles. In a small square of sky reflected in this water, an airplane passes briefly. The camera finally pans up to reveal that we are in a carport, and to introduce the agent of the scene’s action (the mop-pusher) and the film’s protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a dark-skinned Mixteca nanny and live-in maid to the film’s light-skinned, middle-class family, a semi-autobiographical version of Cuarón’s own. It is Cleo’s experiences that will determine the film’s pace and plot. We trail her as she cleans, launders, and tends to the children’s needs. And while Cuarón is determined to elevate these quotidian chores to Art (as established in the opening sequence), the director also explores beyond them, to the fullness of Cleo’s (Lido’s) humanity that he regrets having been blind to as a child. We follow Cleo beyond the family home, into her own attached apartment, where she giggles and does calisthenics with her fellow maid Adela, and out into the city, where she walks to restaurants and movie theaters. We learn that behind Cleo’s stoic expression and near-mute quietness, there are profound emotions. Cleo falls in love, gets pregnant, and suffers her lover’s abandonment. She longs for her mother still living in their home village in Oaxaca, to which Cleo has neither the time, money, nor mode of transport to visit. In other words, Cleo is the driver of the film who does not drive. Most of the time, Cleo doesn’t move so much as she is made to move.
Second only to Cleo in the film’s attentions is the family’s mother, Sofía (Marina de Tavira). With great sympathy, Cuarón shows Sofía navigating her own personal crisis, caused by her feckless husband Antonio’s abandonment, which parallels Cleo’s. Though Sofía and Cleo are not equals, they both suffer the leave-taking of men; and it is this central pairing that suggests that gender dynamics are at least as much on Cuarón’s mind as are race and class. While Cleo responds to her desertion with stoicism, Sofía asserts a greater degree of agency, first to try to convince Antonio to stay and to shield her children from his dereliction, and finally to accept and overcome it for the children’s sake. Under intense emotional distress, she is apt to snap at her children and Cleo, but increasingly puts on a brave face. Sofía does drive, at first quite terribly, but later with authority. By the film’s end, she has taken the wheel of the family’s fate, literally and figuratively.
By virtue of the biology of childbearing and the cultural norms of childrearing, women do not have the luxury of leaving. Instead, they learn to stay in response to men’s seemingly compulsive mobility, which Cuarón represents throughout the film as ill-used. In a peculiar background shot, a man pulls a car with his teeth on a television variety show; in another, a man is shot from a cannon. Male characters move absurdly, frenetically, irresponsibly, destructively. The family’s three young boys (Toño, Paco, and Pepe) move as whirlwinds through scenes, play-pistol fighting, wrestling, racing toy cars, throwing balls, and breaking furniture. In one sequence, Cleo, the family’s grandmother Señora Teresa, and the children walk to a movie theater to see the 1969 Hollywood space travel movie Marooned (with an apt title and theme for Cuarón’s purposes); Toño and Paco race ahead, rudely ringing doorbells along the way and forcing Cleo to give chase through crowded streets, noticeably concerned for their safety. Mirroring the boys’ reckless behavior, the boys’ father and his mistress burst out of the movie theater, rudely jostling an elderly couple, and giggling as they run away, blind to his sons. Cleo catches up just in time to witness Antonio’s treachery and to usher the boys away gently, helping Paco (a stand-in for Cuarón) to deny what he has (almost) seen.
To foreground this theme of selfish male mobility, Cuarón had earlier introduced the character of Antonio as his automobile. Thirteen minutes into the film, interrupting a previous scene of domestic idyll, Antonio arrives as the blaring horn and then the blinding headlights of his gas-guzzling Ford Galaxie. It takes almost two tragicomic minutes for us to see Antonio himself, minutes during which we watch Cleo and Adela open the carport door, a hand shift the gear shaft into Drive, and the oversized sedan imperiously ease itself into the narrow domestic space. Despite Sofia’s and the children’s warm welcome, Antonio will not stay; he will not be contained. The next morning, Antonio will pack his bags and drive away in a Volkswagen Beetle, the second of the family’s three cars (the third is a Plymouth Valiant), luxuries his doctor’s salary can afford and symbols of the middle class’s upward mobility during the so-called Mexican Miracle after World War II. While the children are told that Antonio is departing for a short research trip to Quebec, it is clear that Antonio’s leave-taking is indefinite. He drives away, leaving Sofía standing in the street and Cleo mopping up the dog shit in the carport, of which he had complained (and which we now understand to be the object of Cleo’s mopping in the opening sequence). This is the last we’ll see of Antonio, except for his fleeting appearance outside the movie theater and another in the hospital in which he offers Cleo, laboring with child in a wheelchair, false comfort before running away again as fast as he can.
Fermín, Cleo’s lover, is equally frenetic and feckless. Meeting Cleo for a date, Fermín is too restless to sit still for a movie; he convinces her to go for a walk in the park – well, really, to fornicate – instead. Post-coital, a naked Fermín uses a hotel room’s shower curtain rod as a makeshift kendo stick to demonstrate his martial arts skills, a physical practice that Fermín claims as a personal existential necessity, one he has used to pull himself out of a life in the slums. Later, Fermín (like Antonio) will also run from a movie theater, in Fermín’s case as a wretched response to Cleo’s announcement that she is pregnant (in the background, on the theater’s screen, men laughingly crash a plane in a French film comedy). When Cleo tracks Fermín down some months later (via a ride on a crowded bus, a walking slog through mud, and a lift from Fermín’s friend), Fermín is found practicing his stick-fighting skills, one among six dozen or so simultaneously moving young men. As we will later learn, Fermín and these men belong to a paramilitary group – known as Los Halcones [The Falcons] – trained by Luis Echeverría Álvarez’s administration and the CIA to suppress Mexico’s student movement for social, economic, and political reforms. Confronted by Cleo after practice, Fermín chooses both flight and fight: he denies his paternal responsibility, threatens to wield his martial arts against Cleo and her baby, and then sprints away, leaping on a moving truck filled with his brethren.
In the wake of these frenetic and fleeing men, Cleo and Sofía are left behind, stuck with the responsibilities of the domestic sphere. Cuarón uses modes of transport to explore their stuck-ness. Take, for instance, Sofia’s relationship with Antonio’s Ford Galaxie. As a symbol of her husband’s leave-taking, she punishes it in a drunken fury, jamming it into the carport, scraping it mercilessly. Later, while driving Cleo to her first obstetrics appointment and seeming unhinged by their parallel predicaments, Sofía drives the Galaxie between two trucks, wedging it there, as if to punish the car further and express her own sense of being stuck. After this, however, Sofía takes control. She takes Cleo and the children on a road trip in the Plymouth Valiant to visit her brother and a friend’s hacienda for the Christmas holidays. Coming to terms with Antonio’s abandonment, she decides to sell the Galaxie for a car that better fits the carport and the family’s newly restricted budget. But before she relinquishes it, Sofía insists that Cleo join the family on a final trip in it. Cuarón emphasizes Sofia’s agency with long shots of her at the wheel. On this trip to the beach, she tells her children the truth about their father and announces that she has found a new, better-paying career to keep the family afloat. They will start over, she enthuses. She will drive them on more road-trip adventures. No, not to Disneyland, too expensive, but Oaxaca is doable.
For her part, Cleo is more stuck than Sofía. By virtue of race and class, she is stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. She cannot change careers let alone jobs (her unwed pregnancy had her briefly terrified that Sofía would dismiss her, emphasizing Cleo’s vulnerability). Though Cleo is brought more closely into the family circle by the women’s parallel crises, and while Sofía has cheered that the family’s intended Oaxaca road trip might include a stop in Cleo’s home village, Sofía will decide if and when they go. Cleo will remain a passenger in whatever vehicle the family chooses. Cleo’s lack of mobility is most painfully emphasized – and contextualized within larger historical forces – in the sequences in which Cuaròn pairs the Corpus Christi massacre and the stillbirth of Cleo’s daughter. These open, again, with Cleo in the passenger seat (and Señora Teresa in the back seat), this time as the family’s driver eases the Plymouth Valiant at a crawl behind student protestors making their way to Mexico City’s main square. Forced to park at a distance, Cleo, Señora Teresa, and the driver walk to a furniture store, our view of them partially obscured, in Cuaròn’s tracking shot, by a lineup of police riot trucks. Inside the store, Cleo and Teresa contemplate a crib for Cleo’s yet-unborn baby when the protestors on the street below are attacked by Los Halcones, wielding kendo sticks and guns. Four of them pursue two students into the furniture store, shooting one at point-blank; Cleo’s water breaks at the shock of seeing that Fermín is one of the gunmen. Caught in political and personal events beyond her control, Cleo then suffers through contractions in the back of the Valiant, stuck for hours in a tunnel in standstill traffic jam caused by the day’s violent chaos. When they finally arrive at the hospital, Cleo’s daughter is born “still,” unmoving, dead, a devastating experience that Cuarón gives us with agonizingly long takes.
At other times, Cuarón wants to positively connote Cleo’s stuck-ness as stillness, as a state of being that promotes the virtues of patience and constancy. Cleo’s immobility means she is always there for the family, always there to nurture the children. She, along with Sofia, can be relied upon to stay, to be grounded, to give the domestic sphere its redemptive, life-giving powers, to be the very roots Cuarón seeks. Cleo is so good at stillness, in fact, that she is able to “play dead” with the youngest child as they lie unmoving together in the cleansing sun of the family’s rooftop. Cleo’s exceptional capacity for stillness is emphasized again at the aforementioned Halcones’ martial arts practice session. When all are challenged by the bizarre Professor Zovek to hold the yoga “Tree Pose” – a rare skill that he characterizes as more impressive than self-levitating or lifting a jet – Cleo alone can do it, holding steadily while everyone else, including all Los Halcones, flail (and while a plane crosses the sky). Finally, it is Cleo’s role as “stayer” that saves the life of two of the children on their beach vacation. While Sofía leaves briefly to check the Galaxie’s tires, little Sofi and Paco stray too far out in the waves, forcing Cleo to brave the waters (despite her inability to swim) to rescue them. Collapsed on the beach, the family huddles together in tears and in love, “very very close” as Sofía has insisted, the ultimate expression of Cuaron’s (problematic) romanticization of the domestic sphere. As Sofía drives the family back to Mexico City, Cuarón lingers lovingly and at length on Cleo in the backseat, literally laden with children, smiling mildly.
Indeed, even the languid pace Cuarón uses throughout the film seems to want to elevate the (feminine and domestic) virtue of soul-nurturing stillness over the (masculine) trait of destructive freneticism. Some shots of the family home, painstakingly recreated to match Cuarón’s memories, are held so long without any movement in them that they could be “stills.” Satisfying his own sense of nostalgia, which is after all the experience of deriving pleasure from being stuck in the past, Cuarón seems to insist that forward motion is not all that great; that there is virtue in staying put. While the film’s villainous male characters flee domestic constraint, Cuarón asserts himself as a man who wants to slow down, who wants to stay.
In the end, though, the film remains ambivalent. Cuarón is not quite able to exorcise his guilt. After all, he did leave, and others were left behind. Some fly, while others have no choice but to stay, like the caged birds in the film’s opening and closing sequences of Cleo’s domestic chores. Wash, rinse, repeat. History as cyclical rather than progressive. Too much stillness is death, a state of being that Cleo is able to replicate because she is dead tired from demanding, menial labor more than because she is naturally Zen. No matter how masterfully filmed, the shimmery, meditatively repeated washes of water in the carport in Roma’s opening sequence, we have learned, are full of dog shit, which (Lido was and) Cleo is made to mop day in and day out, even as her charge-cum-creator jets away high overhead.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film. Courtesy of Netflix.