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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thoughts on Cuarón's Roma

I just finally watched Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, and absolutely loved it.

I'm aware of the critique that the story of Cleo/Manita, the indigenous domestic worker who is the main character of the film, wasn't Cuaron's to tell, and isn't his to know, anyway.

But I thought the film operated from an awareness of that, not an ignorance of it.

I experienced Roma as a movie about external surfaces--of places, events, people--and how unknowable others are if we only know them by their surfaces. Cleo is certainly treated like an alien cipher. But so are the parents, grandma, kids, and political background; the real workings of people and the world are hidden everywhere, with the realities of labor, nature and even physics subsumed beneath a facade that the ruling class (and ruling race) thinks it has bought and paid for.

Some critics have complained that Cleo has little texture as a character. But I didn't read her as boring or shallow at all; in Yalitza Aparicio's focused performance, and the camera's steady focus on her, I saw a wide range of experiences and thoughts. It was that inner life, in contrast with the narrow opportunities for agency open to her, that felt so arresting to me.

Her relationship with the children, among whom Cuarón clearly seemed to see himself, was fascinating, lovely and also disturbing. I read the class and racial structures around Cleo as forcing her to do emotional labor--often unpaid--to appear loving, without allowing her to be known. The children think they love her, and they do, in a sort of way that is steeped in her service to them, and mostly--but not completely--one-sided. They know nothing about her, and never will. Cuarón shows us that even when the family acts familial toward Cleo--taking her furniture shopping, for example--they still have so little curiosity about her that they have no idea when she was born, when the question comes up.

And yet, through all this exploitation, Cleo still struggles persistently to build a life. Meanwhile, around her, a movement for an economy of greater human meaning explodes: the one outward expression in the movie which is genuine and unfiltered, and not presented for its surface imagery or its pantomime.

The possibility of a deeper change is there; but it's stolen by the state, by patriarchy, and by the ways Cleo's life is made to conform to her exploitative work. Her employment, her betrayal by men, and the movement's destruction by the state are all connected by a common thread.

That was my read, but it also comes through my own lens, and I'm sure there's lots that that's missing!