Roma: Alfonso Cuarón has developed into an able craftsman but does not have anything of significance to say

MK Raghavendra

Jan 31, 2019 12:01:56 IST

By all accounts Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is likely to win most of the major Oscars this year and, even if surprises are sprung, there appears to a critical consensus that it is the best film by far in 2018. The film was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2018, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion. The film is quasi-autobiographical and deals with an upper-class family in the Colonia Roma vicinity in Mexico City around 1970, a mother who is in the process of breaking up with her husband and, more importantly, the household help Cleo who lives with them, and who the four children are deeply attached to. The film was shot on the same street where Cuarón lived around the same period.

To relate what happens in Roma, the film begins with water being splashed on the tiles in the home’s parking space and it turns out that this is Cleo washing out the poop left there by the family dog. Cleo – who is of indigenous origin while the family is white – is evidently overworked but she never complains. We begin by supposing that this is going to become an exposition on class/race relations but this is gradually belied when she is treated well by the mother Sophia and looked after when she becomes pregnant. Cleo and another maid Adela have boyfriends and Fermin, with whom Cleo has a relationship, is a martial arts aficionado. The film is episodic and the key events involve a visit to a friend’s hacienda for the new year, street violence and massacre of peacefully protesting students by right-wing goons (among whom is Fermin), Cleo trying to meet Fermin but being rebuffed, the birth of Cleo’s child, which is dead, Sophia and the family vacating the house briefly for her husband Antonio to take away his possessions, and a concluding sequence on a beach when Cleo saves one of the children from drowning.

Roma: Alfonso Cuarón has developed into an able craftsman but does not have anything of significance to say

A still from the film Roma. Source: Twitter

There are evidently political signposts put up but Mexican history is not something one might relate to; the only politics one understands is that Cuarón’s sympathies are not with the regime, which then had the support of the United States. It has become routine for American films (and TV shows like Homeland) to portray the American state as creating disturbances in other countries; still, there are always good people shown working individually to try and undo the harm done by the state department, even as they endeavour to be patriotic Americans, and when it comes to America’s interests everyone is on the same side. Cuarón’s viewpoint fits in well with the one upheld by liberal Hollywood and Roma cannot be termed trenchant political criticism of the regime or of the US or even incisively political.

Roma is exquisitely shot in black and white and wonderfully staged – especially the visit to the hacienda and the street violence, but it seems to have value only because the filmmaker experienced all of it, first-hand. There are no relationships explored and everything is handled in a benign, inoffensive way, as spectacle. The husband Antonio is hardly even present and, as I have explained, the dependence of the family on the saintly Cleo does not develop into social critique. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that the film is full of signs that ‘indicate that the image of Cleo's goodness is itself a trap, the object of implicit critique which denounces her dedication as the result of her ideological blindness;’ still, not only is there no trace of irony in Cleo’s portrayal but Sophia doing her best to help Cleo when she is pregnant and staying by her hardly supports Žižek’s reading. Rather than Cleo as ‘ideologically blind’ she represents the ‘loyal servant’ that Indians are familiar with from Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, ie: Cuarón is himself perhaps ‘blind’ for treating a servant’s devotion to her masters as evidence of her ‘goodness’, paying a tribute in the dedication to his film. One would hardly be deliberate in portraying the ‘ideological blindness’ of people and still honour the qualities that made them so.

Perhaps as important as this political naiveté on the part of the film is its autobiographical aspect since autobiographical films are usually projects undertaken by filmmakers regarded as masters. A filmmaker widely associated with autobiographical films is Federico Fellini – whose film Roma (1972) Cuarón is perhaps invoking – but they were made when Fellini was already an acknowledged master. Ingmar Bergman, likewise, made Fanny and Alexander (1982) in the twilight of his career. Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) is also autobiographical but in a different sense: it is not legitimate because Truffaut as an artist had become important but because Truffaut’s childhood made for good fiction.

Overall, the general sense is that for a filmmaker to resort to autobiography in his/her films she/he needs to have become a significant artist, whose story is worth telling to the public. It is evident that both films by Fellini and Bergman are overwhelmed by intense personal feelings that Roma shows little evidence of; Roma does not even contain elements that might have made for good fiction since nothing develops in its course. The problem is perhaps that Cuarón is a minor artist who has taken on projects like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and my sense is that a director who makes a film in a popular series – like James Bond, Star Wars or Harry Potter – is admitting that he or she has minor ambitions. But suddenly in Roma, we find Cuarón paying homage to himself, as it were. Cleo and Fermin watch Marooned (1969), the minor film that inspired his own Gravity (2013) and the extended childbirth scene in Roma is reminiscent of the childbirth scene in Children of Men (2006). The length of the childbirth scene in that film was justified since it was about the last human, but not here.

Cuarón has developed into an able craftsman but he does not have enough of significance to say. This being the case one begins to wonder how Roma is receiving such unqualified universal approval. My own explanation is that the reception of cinema has been changing significantly in the past few decades and art-house cinema, to which whatever I have said would have applied, is being judged quite differently – primarily because of the viewing circumstances of new cinema and the audiences they are directed at.

The films by Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut I cited earlier were all part of the category called the ‘international art film’ and these films had their viewership in art theatres in the major cities and in film clubs, often in the universities. The public to which the films catered were highly literate, usually academics; since these audiences were well-informed and intellectual, they applied the same standards in judging films that they applied to literature. Žižek reads Roma the way someone aware of political issues in culture would read it. The idea that only someone with a body of significant work should write an autobiography owes to the norm in producing literature in an age when content needed to be weighty. Only when writers had demonstrated their understanding of the world did they speak of themselves.

Roma belongs to a category quite different, which can be called the ‘global art film’ that gets shown at international film festivals to roaming critics primarily producing publicity; the same critics move from festival to festival consuming the latest films and most of the younger ones are even ignorant of film history. They write about films as though there was no past to cinema and this means they are incapable of comparing and contrasting, each film is a stand-alone achievement. But every film that seems an achievement today is forgotten next year when there is a new winner at Cannes or Berlin. Instead of taste created by a highly literate public, it is the publicist who is, by and large, creating it but most people rely on his/her pronouncements and it circulates as gospel truth for a while. Critics who praise films like Roma are not well-versed in literature since they do not read books and they do not even see serious content as essential to good cinema. What they respond to most is the look of a film and it is only in its ‘look’ that Roma comes up trumps; still, the look of a film is not something it is long remembered by.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2019 09:43:03 IST