Alfonso Cuarón has a thing for distance and height. Like Gravity (2014), the opening shot of last year’s Roma sees the world of Cleo – an indigenous woman and domestic worker for the movie’s middle-class Mexican family – from above. In this case, the above is not very high, maybe a few metres. The below is a stone pavement being washed. As the water begins to pool, the camera catches a doorway in the reflection. For Cuarón, the distance between them might as well be as vast as outer space and earth, as in Gravity. But in Roma, terra firma is the optical illusion that the water exposes. Much like a photographic print being developed, the image develops over time in soapy waves. Someone is cleaning, and it is through the reflection, and the water that gradually rises, that a story of female labour and servitude emerges.
To reflect on the success of Roma, set in Mexico City in 1970, you must consider the current present. Plenty of reviews have already established the film’s story and celebrated its formal merits. My interest lies in the cultural landscape to which it is beholden. That is, in what the success of the film says about the culture that rewards it. Roma has garnered praise chiefly because no one seems to remember (or has to remember) what actually proceeds it, cinematically or historically. Writing for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis applauds Cuarón’s visual language, the wide-ranging shades of his monochrome. In addressing the class critiques waged against the film for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes, ‘here’s the thing: Roma is persuasive in its beauty. It wins you over.’
Seduction, another word Lane uses to describe the film, is necessary and apparently commendable if we want to encounter cultural objects at face value, as the beauty in front of us, onscreen. He commends Roma’s power to seduce against our better judgement. To do so, the film must be labelled a masterpiece without lineage. It must be a film that shows the past – condensed to the year 1970 – yet does not ask political questions, only personal ones. In this case, history – both on and off the screen – is purely tautological. New because it is now. This may seem like an old argument about the relevance of auteur theory or the inevitability of artistic imitation. It is neither. Imitation or appropriation, like any other artistic approach, can and has been a valuable method of creative practice. Roma, on the other hand, does not acknowledge its debt to this practice, nor its debt to the dialectics of time.
In Alice Rohrwacher’s 2018 film Happy as Lazzaro, labour and class are approached as both political and historical subject. Lazzaro, a young rural peasant in central Italy, and Tancredi, the alienated son of the aristocratic family that employs him, are paired in complex, layered ways in order to examine the bondage and debt of the poor to the rich. Rohrwacher intentionally makes the period of the first half of the film unclear – it could be the 1940s, or the 19th century. Time belongs to capitalism, which enslaves the labour class to a clock that is both feudal and ever-present. Rohrwacher weaves Happy as Lazzaro from the fabric of earlier Italian cinema. For her, it is rich material from which to draw new questions about the past and the future.
In Roma, Cuarón also underscores Cleo’s indefinable status, her infinite domestic and affective responsibilities, yet he romanticizes and justifies these incalculable services as mutually beneficial and equally valuable. In interviews, Cuarón refers to Cleo’s wounds as ‘family wounds’ (not hers, but his), displacing and interchanging her emotional and class struggle with the bourgeoisie that exploits it. Cuarón’s reboot of neorealism – ‘a contemporary black and white, pristine, no grain, digital,’ he explains – is reduced to style without ethos (the form has already been put to much better use by the satirical anarchy of Spanish and Italian cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s – most notably, the widescreen anomie of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964),Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Victor Erice’s The Spirit of The Beehive (1973), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Carlos Suara’s Cria Cuervos (1977). By the end of Roma, socio-political conditions are effaced, and serfdom is elevated to love.
Roma seems to take all the credit for its success; not because it necessarily stakes a direct claim of originality, but because to uniformly celebrate a cultural object, or be celebrated as a cultural maker these days, is to marginalize – and even forget – the presence and continuum of others. The film, along with the cultural imagination that rewards it, advances itself as unprecedented by default because, as Cuarón says, ‘it is personal’ – even though life, as Gilles Deleuze once noted, is not personal, and neither is history. It is shared, incriminating and should matter even if you didn’t experience it directly. Moreover, Roma acutely reflects the ‘presentist’ time we live in, a time which treats everything – including works of art – as a singular event. An age in which things are announced as new simply because it is new for right now.
The present is lost in the past, not because it is engaged with it (or its memory of it) critically or dialectically; not because it remembers it (in the age of the memoir, history is both subjective and self-determined), and not because it is looking for a real answer to what is happening now. Whatever is great or moving in Roma – whatever is political about it – is encased in a (literally) colourless tribute, where it is safe. Class, migrant labour, the exploits of the upper class, the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 are all harmonized, neutralized and absolved (made unthreatening) by its fashionably autobiographical premise: this is Cuarón’s story, his childhood, his memory, his nanny and family servant. The historical events and injustices of the time just happen to coincide with that life.
Roma is full of other movies, both the ones watched in the film itself and others we don’t see. Yet it ignores the political and dialectical history of movies themselves. The history that movies produce and that are produced by movies. Our present avoids the future in favour of the constant now, which runs on 24/7 coverage and minute-by-minute outrage. The kind of outrage that prohibits us from truly imagining a different future. The past is seized, overly personalized, territorialized. Not understood. The present is watched, scaled, unreachable. It is accelerated to the point of seeming like the future. In today’s present, one has to forget everything before and to deny anything after. One has to cast one’s individual past, vision and experience over everything, forfeiting perspective and accountability. One person’s selective autobiography does the work of collectively remembering. As many reviews have noted, along with many works of our time, Roma argues that it’s more important to be moved by the past – our past – than it is to think long and hard about what it says about us.
Main image: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma, 2018. Courtesy: Netflix