Roma is a district located in Mexico City, which was planned and developed as an upper-class neighborhood colony, but failed to bloom and led itself to slow decay. In no time, it transformed into a middle-class neighborhood.
Academy Award-winning Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film is based here in the decade after that in 1985 when an earthquake worsened the economy of the colony.
Alphonso depicts the society of his childhood, which is unprepared for its decline. It is culturally European, but has glimpses of its future ruins, be it the panic created by an earthquake or the silence created by violent suppression of protesting students through paramilitary groups like Los Halcones.
Alphonso carefully places Cleo, an indigenous live-in maid who is a slow and minimally-active character, to show a society in flux. It is the stillness of Cleo and the inherent slow pace of Roma as a space that truly highlights the momentum of change in it.
Both the opening and closing shots of the film are remarkable in their narrative significance. Roma opens with the shot of an airplane flying in the sky. We don’t look at it directly, but in the reflection of water on the floor. These oppositions of flux and stillness, rest and struggle, silence and noise give birth two simultaneously operating characters in Roma – the maid and the city.
The maid is deceived by her lover and gets pregnant, while the city experiences an earthquake. The city experiences a riot and the maid gives birth to a stillborn baby. That dead baby mirrors the unenviable rebirth of Roma, surgically accomplished by the American market culture.
Cleo is a silent character. She is primarily a witness and an experiencer at the receiving end of situations, very much like Roma’s society or the red Indians. She, in a way, begins to represent her larger society and its response to the arrival of American retail technology and lifestyle.
Her constant, ambiguous ‘Mona Lisa smile’ exudes wonder and depression at the same time whenever she looks at airplanes and cars. She is not critical of anything, but silent like a tree. To drive this point, Cuarón masterfully attends Cleo with children and dogs that showcase similar attributes. She, naturally, has a close relationship with children and dogs, as they all are new to this flux.
The general order is to treat dominant characters in singular terms. For instance, the employer is ruthless because he a capitalist, the husband is oppressive because he is patriarchal, the beautiful girl is selfish because she is a consumer of the modern, globalised market.
Roma, on the other hand, provides the viewer a rare opportunity of looking at their ‘antagonists’ in details. These details are derived through the confusion, deviation or complexities in the singularity of a character. Here, a character is not a solid vessel of characteristics, but liquid flowing through the passage of flux in time and society, responding and surviving through it.
The character is lively, unpredictable, surprising and unsure of itself in Roma, just the way animals always are – unsure and absurd.
Present times have seen the rise of an important debate on gender power relations. Questions such as ‘what is expected of a woman with respect to her dressing, behavior, limits of freedom and sexuality?’ are being probed and hashed out in the public space.
The business of storytelling eagerly looks for such volatile debates for stories that lack conflict can hardly ever entertain an audience. The movement for women’s rights has, very expectedly, given the business of storytelling, authorship and media a new fertile land.
Roma seems to be not utilising that fertile land. In fact, there is a subtle dissenting dialogue in Curaon’s story. He sees gender relations in the cobweb of class, technology, times, setting and makes it lifelike complex. The film is less interested in wish-fulfillment by making women rebellious and ‘having their time of life’. It takes humans as helplessly tied to larger structures of life and economy.
Humans are not warriors here, but trees in a storm, trying to survive gales of change.
In Roma, identities are not innate, but borrowed. The flux in society provides a new market of identities, which can be borrowed till the time they expire. The mother of the middle-class family Cleo works for, Sofia, drives her husband’s Ford and always fails to make a correct approximation of its size while parking. The car is full of dents.
It is the authority and security of masculine identity Sofia is wearing that becomes the chain in her neck and begins to suffocate her eventually. She feels better after she gets a new car and a new identity, which suits her better.
Cleo’s short-lived partner, Fermin, operates in a similar vein. He is a drug addict who finds refuge in martial arts. The niche of martial arts, its ideology and belief system, provide a social and psychological space for him to start his life all over again. He is seen holding a gun in the riots later, and so are all the martial arts practitioners.
The transformation of martial art folks into a violent paramilitary force against student protesters becomes a striking comment over the mechanism of the identity trade. If you buy an identity, it has a cost. You never know the secret clauses while buying it, and yet, it can ultimately demand the payment of interests.
In a similar fashion, the Colonia Roma, now divided by Coahuila street into Roma Norte and Roma Sur, paid the cost of the European colonial identity that former seven-terms Mexican President, Porfirio Diaz, forced down its throat. The European utopia of colonial market and commercial buildings failed against the wild outers of Mexico. Just like how the dream of Titanic failed against the unpredictability of the Atlantic Ocean.
In Cuarón’s soul-stirring tale, the wilderness of the Mexican civilization shows itself through martial arts, student revolution, its violent suppression and earthquakes. No one wins over the nature – be it a ship or a city.
Prashant Verma is a Mumbai-based filmmaker. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: “Roma” filming location in Mexico City, Mexico | Source: Wikimedia Commons