‘ROMA,’ Alfonso Cuaron’s Empathic Masterpiece


The Cuarón-philic will also find delicacies among the sumptuous black and white feast. While he mostly eschews the audacious long shots that have come to improperly define his contribution to cinema (although there are some show-stoppers in Roma, to be sure), Cuarón instead flecks the movie with little hints as to his artistic raison d’être. Cleo’s pregnancy announcement to Fermín (and his rejection) is in the backseat of a movie theater we’ll see showing the 1969 film Marooned, specifically a scene that very nearly mirrors Bullock’s near-death at the beginning of Gravity. A final beach catharsis from Sofia informs a similar scene in Y Tu Mamá También. The most brutal of these cinephile references to his earlier work is also the movie’s most stunning scene.

History, both personal and societal, collide as Teresa takes Cleo to a department store to shop for a baby bassinet, with Cleo’s due date fast approaching and without hope of Fermín’s paternal return. Yet student protestors are filling the streets as they approach the store, an impossibly kinetic cloud hanging over Cleo’s increasingly troubled face. As Teresa and Cleo begin to shop, Cuarón executes a jaw-dropping widescreen 360-degree panning shot, gliding away from the nervous Cleo to view the street as the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 10, 1971 takes place below. A masterwork of set and choreographed design, everything feels slightly sterile until, inevitably, a familiar face arrives to bring tragedy upon the family.

*Spoilers ahead*

Fermín’s alliance with the CIA-backed “Halconazo” feels obvious in hindsight, yet his presence, forcing Cleo into labor through sheer force of masculine terror, is heart-breaking. For those unlucky enough, the parallelism is all too real. Kee and Theo’s graceful exit, with baby, from the bombed-out husk of an apartment in Children of Men suddenly doesn’t feel treacly or overly dramatic. Instead, as we watch real doctors (not actors) fail to save Cleo’s stillborn baby, we realize that the scene from Children of Men is a Cuarón struggling to right the wrong of such devastation brought upon someone so innocent.

Roma as context for Cuarón’s oeuvre would be a simplistic enough reading of the movie. Not entirely wrong, either. It certainly establishes his penchant for absentee men searching for a purpose as the world around them bubbles over. The true majesty in Roma is Cuarón’s realization to invert this perspective and plumb a new depth in his own storytelling.

Teresa, Sofia and Cleo are being left behind, in almost every way. They are buffeted ceaselessly by the male impetus for progress and achievement. Perhaps these men will make the world a better place, one day. Antonio could be the doctor to make sainthood-worthy scientific breakthroughs. Fermín could realize and divorce himself from his body, achieving spiritual enlightenment through action. The Mexico of 1971 may yet live another year.

Progress, however, at what cost? A military parade tramples through the ruins of a dissolving marriage and a crumbling facade. A man flails a curtain rod around his exposed genitalia while a woman waits for him to tire, to be with her, fully, for the first time. A performer shoots himself into the sky as a giant fuck-you to whatever deity bore him as women, babies around their chests, work for the pittance other men have allotted for them. A man sings the new year while a pregnant woman frantically bails waiter on a burning earth. A plane flies over a maid, indifferent.

Perhaps Cuarón will make a movie about Fermín. Or Antonio, or the plane or the Corpus Christi Massacre. Perhaps, in his own way, he already has. Yet Roma is not that film. All that history and context and cinematic flexing serve the three women at the story’s center, their lives inextricably linked, yet persistently independent of the world outside. Sofia rams the Ford Galaxie (no other car is such a symbol of the magnanimity of human progress, a male phallus, and the crown jewel of Antonio’s life) into the car park with little care for its condition and Cuarón tips his hand in a suitably unsubtle way.


What subtlety should there be? For a filmmaker accused of crafting female characters with few lines, ferried across alien atmospheres by varyingly helpful male guides, Roma feels like a profound, empathetic apology. That Cuarón has famously been trying to execute the story of his beloved Libo for nearly a decade speaks to his need to atone for the gaze he developed as a preternaturally gifted filmmaking voice. Perhaps a little too armchair Inside the Director’s Studio, but one could almost watch Hermione Granger’s face as she reveals her utility in The Prisoner of Azkaban to mark Cuarón slowly realizing the integral place of women in his stories that he had somewhat carelessly tossed aside.

One need not look further than the color palette of the movie to see Cuarón’s mea culpa. In a movie obsessed with the male thrust toward the future, Cuarón chose black and white, that most antiquated of color palettes, to showcase his love letter to the women who had such a hand in his growth. Perhaps it’s typically male of Alfonso Cuarón to feel empowered enough to tell Libo’s story. Undoubtedly, he is the only male filmmaker who could imbue her story with the poignancy it deserves.

Thus, Roma is a movie of tremendous empathy, a director recognizing his own smallness in the face of those who shepherded him to the point of his success. It is the lifting up of those around him, so much so that Cuarón never bothers to even mention which of the four children in the movie might be his mirror. The last set piece of the film, a surprise to nobody who has seen any of Roma’s press materials, is perhaps the most exquisitely crafted of Cuarón’s career, a female body nearly destroyed in the process of maintaining a semblance of the order that has been ripped away in all other facets. Husbands have left, as has wealth. Life has ended, all too soon. A country has tenuously gripped control in a world spiraling out of it in the face of gargantuan North American influence. The Earth temperature has risen.

Somewhere, on a nondescript beach along a nondescript highway, a woman is held by the family she has barely held together, a titanic achievement that happens every day. She asks no thanks, recognition or remuneration.

Shanti shanti shanti. It is enough.

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