[Marxism] There’s a Voice Missing in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 22 11:27:21 MST 2018

(Not sure whether I will get around to torpedoing Alfonso Cuaron's 
"Roma", especially after reading this stellar take-down. When I went to 
Bard, there were any number of wealthier Jewish students who spoke 
fondly of their African-American maids, who were like mothers to them. 
Behind their backs, they were called "schvartzes", the Yiddish word for 
blacks--a slur. I couldn't help thinking of this watching Cuaron's film. 
Maybe it got such rave reviews because it reminded so many critics of 
their own beloved "schvartze".)

The New Yorker, December 18, 2018
There’s a Voice Missing in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”
By Richard Brody

“Roma,” written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, centers on Cleo (Yalitza 
Aparicio), whom Cuarón modelled after his own impactful nanny but whom 
he reduces to a bland and blank trope.Photograph by Carlos Somonte
Even noteworthy filmmakers may not see what they’re doing. They can 
reveal crucial aspects of their work inadvertently, bringing to light 
the cinematic unconscious, hinting at what a movie could and should have 
been. That’s what Alfonso Cuarón, the writer and director of “Roma,” did 
in an interview for a recent magazine article. Set in Mexico City in 
1970-71, “Roma” depicts a family much like the one in which he was 
raised and is centered on a domestic worker, both maid and nanny, named 
Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio); the character, Cuarón has said, is 
based on a woman named Libo Rodríguez, who played a similar role in his 
childhood (and to whom the movie is dedicated).

In the article, the journalist Kristopher Tapley conveys the substance 
of Cuarón’s inspiration for “Roma”: “Rodríguez would talk to Cuarón 
about her hardships as a girl, about feeling cold or hungry. But as a 
little boy, he would look at those stories almost like adventures. She 
would tell him about her father, who used to play an ancient 
Mesoamerican ballgame that’s almost lost to the ages now, or about witch 
doctors who would try to cure people in her village. To him it was all 
very exciting.”

Watching “Roma,” one awaits such illuminating details about Cleo’s life 
outside of her employer’s family, and such a generously forthcoming and 
personal relationship between Cleo and the children in her care. There’s 
nothing of this sort in the movie; Cleo hardly speaks more than a 
sentence or two at a time and says nothing at all about life in her 
village, her childhood, her family. She’s a loving and caring young 
woman, and the warmth of her feelings for the family she works for—and 
theirs for her—is apparent throughout. But Cleo remains a cipher; her 
interests and experiences—her inner life—remain inaccessible to Cuarón. 
He not only fails to imagine who the character of Cleo is but fails to 
include the specifics of who Libo was for him when he was a child.

In the process, he turns the character of Cleo into a stereotype that’s 
all too common in movies made by upper-middle-class and intellectual 
filmmakers about working people: a strong, silent, long-enduring, and 
all-tolerating type, deprived of discourse, a silent angel whose 
inability or unwillingness to express herself is held up as a mark of 
her stoic virtue. (It’s endemic to the cinema and even leaves its scars 
on better movies than “Roma,” including some others from this year, such 
as “Leave No Trace” and “The Rider.”) The silent nobility of the working 
poor takes its place in a demagogic circle of virtue sharing that links 
filmmakers (who, if they offer working people a chance to speak, do so 
only in order to look askance at them, as happens in “Roma” with one 
talkative but villainous poor man) with their art-house audiences, who 
are similarly pleased to share in the exaltation of heroes who do manual 
labor without having to look closely or deeply at elements of their 
heroes’ lives that don’t elicit either praise or pity.

That effacement of Cleo’s character, her reduction to a bland and blank 
trope that burnishes the director’s conscience while smothering her 
consciousness and his own, is the essential and crucial failure of 
“Roma.” It sets the tone for the movie’s aesthetic and hollows it out, 
reducing Cuarón’s worthwhile intentions and evident passions to vain 

“Roma” is the story of a family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma 
neighborhood (where Cuarón grew up): father, Antonio (Fernando 
Grediaga), a doctor; mother, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist who 
is running the household and not working; grandmother, Teresa (Verónica 
García), who is Sofía's mother; and four children (a girl and three 
boys), ranging, seemingly, from about six to about twelve. And then 
there’s the household staff, Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García); 
there’s also a man who drives the family car, but he is utterly 

The youngest child, Pepe (Marco Graf), an imaginative boy who talks 
about being a pilot, seems to be the Cuarón stand-in, though the movie 
isn’t dramatized from his point of view. (I’ll avoid disclosing some 
major plot developments.) The family is solidly upper middle class; they 
live in a house separated from the city street by a gate and divided 
from neighboring houses by an alley, in which they park their cars (and 
in which the family dog, Borras, runs loose and defecates). Antonio, who 
claims to be heading to Quebec for a temporary research project, 
actually remains in Mexico City, simply having left his wife and family 
in order to live with another woman.

Meanwhile, Cleo, quiet and patient, has her own romantic dreams: she’s 
dating Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a cousin of Adela’s boyfriend, 
Ramón, and becomes pregnant. The family sympathizes with her; Cleo 
continues to work for them and receives good medical care, thanks to the 
family’s connection to a major urban hospital. But trouble ensues when 
Cleo goes on a shopping trip with Teresa, during a day of student 
protests; they know that such protests have been violently repressed, 
but this time the violence is worse than before, and Cleo and Teresa 
observe it up close. (Cuarón is dramatizing an actual historic crisis, 
the Corpus Christi Massacre, of 1971, in which soldiers and 
paramilitaries gunned down student protesters in the streets of Mexico 
City and pursued them into their hiding places and refuges, including 

Cuarón expands the story with copious, carefully observed—rather, 
carefully constructed and planted—details that, for the most part, 
rather than developing a wide-ranging and deep-reaching view of the life 
of the family and its times, lines them up and points them all in the 
same direction. But, because his view of Cleo is willfully, cavalierly 
vague, his view of the public and historical events in which she becomes 
entangled, and which he dramatizes, is similarly flattened and obscured.

For instance, when Cleo learns that she’s pregnant, she’s seen sitting 
pensively at the window of the small garret room that she shares with 
Adela. Does she give any thought to abortion? What was the law on the 
subject in Mexico at the time? Was the practice common, regardless of 
legal strictures? Or consider the political context that Cuarón places 
into the story. There’s an ongoing issue regarding land use and 
ownership; the family’s wealthy friends living on a large estate are in 
a dispute with poorer local residents over land, and the conflict turns 
deadly. What are the issues in question? It’s all the odder that the 
movie remains vague when Adela mentions that Cleo’s mother’s land, in 
her native village, is being confiscated. What were the specifics of the 
political conflicts in Mexico then?

Cuarón sets up the story of the Corpus Christi Massacre with a close 
view of the training of the paramilitaries (with a hint—but only a 
hint—of the C.I.A.’s involvement). Yet here, too, he empties the 
conflict of its ideas. What are the students protesting? What are they 
advocating? Why do they seem to threaten the regime? In a scene of a 
political campaign (a rather absurd one, featuring a human cannonball 
launched into a net) in a distant village, where unpaved streets are 
fetid with standing water and basic infrastructure is the Presidential 
candidate’s main promise, Cuarón suggests that Mexico was, at the time, 
at least a semblance of a democracy. But the film doesn’t make clear 
whether it was actually democratic, whether censorship was stringent, 
whether ordinary people, such as the family at the center of the film, 
lived in fear of repression.

What’s missing is, once more, supplied by Cuarón in an interview—one 
that appeared in Le Monde several days ago—in which he discusses the 
massacre and its place in his family’s life: “At the time of the Corpus 
Christi massacre, in 1971, I was ten years old. Part of my family was 
very much on the right, they hated the students who were protesting. But 
I had a Communist uncle. I repeated to him the rightist remarks that I 
was hearing and he asked me why I talked that way about the students and 
got me to realize that I was one of them, at the age of ten. I said to 
myself: I’m like them, except they’re older.” Which is to say that, 
although the specifics of Mexico’s political crises were a part of his 
family life and personal reminiscences, Cuarón carefully omits them from 
the film.

Cuarón doesn’t have any more to say in “Roma” about whether Cleo has any 
political sympathies, inclinations, or ideologies. She is not only 
angelic but devoid of any wider consciousness beyond her immediate 
well-being. In the film, politics are strictly personal, de-ideologized, 
dehistoricized. Cuarón even manages to empty out the social abrasions 
that he drops into the script as asides. For instance, in one brief 
scene at the cousins’ country estate, Cleo is brought by another 
domestic worker, named Benita (Clementina Guadarrama), to a New Year’s 
Eve party of fellow-laborers. But Benita doesn’t want to invite Adela, 
one of the “city nannies” whom she considers haughty and snobbish—yet 
there’s nothing of this attitude, or these social differences, reflected 
in Cleo’s interactions with Adela, who’s her close friend. But, because 
neither Cleo nor Adela is given the script space to say much at all 
beyond the immediate demands of the plot, neither has enough dramatic 
personality to grate on anyone at all.

The film’s point of view isn’t clear regarding its characters—and 
Cuarón’s decorative visual style is calibrated to match the script’s 
vagueness. “Roma” is filmed in a silky, digital black-and-white palette 
that, in eliminating film grain, emphasizes visual details. There are 
many long takes, staged with a theatrical precision—rehearsed to death 
and timed to the moment—that offer a sense of disparate fields of action 
unifying in the characters’ lives, and that raise the events to a heroic 
monumentality, which both emphasizes and depends on the cipherlike 
blankness of the aggrandizing portraiture. For all the movie’s respect 
for physical work, nearly all the scenes of work, of which there are 
many, have a detached, distanced imprecision, which suggests the 
checking-off of a scene list rather that an interest in the specific 
thoughts and demands of the work at hand. (There is, however, one 
extraordinary moment of observation, when Cleo, holding a downstairs 
phone until Sofía can take the call upstairs, hangs the phone up—but not 
before wiping the mouthpiece on her apron.)

The intellectual core of the drama is the parallel of Cleo and Sofía’s 
abandonment by the men in their lives. Both Antonio and Fermín behave 
irresponsibly and leave the two women in dire straits; the movie offers 
one moment, one line of dialogue, in which their plights are explicitly 
linked—and it’s Sofía who delivers the line, to which Cleo listens 
mutely. Does she speak of her experience (and Sofía’s) to Adela or 
another friend or relative? Not in the movie she doesn’t; Cuarón lends 
both voice and consciousness to his intellectual character, to the 
stand-in for his mother.

“Roma” is a personal film, but the term “personal” is no honorific, and 
it’s not an aesthetic term. It’s a neutral descriptor, though it often 
suggests that a filmmaker is inspired by more than the mere pleasure or 
power of a story—by an urgency that taps into a lifetime’s worth of 
experience and emotion. The downside is the risk of complacency, the 
sense that one’s own account of experience is sufficient for dramatic 
amplitude, psychological insight, character development, and contextual 
perspective. Cuarón proceeds as if the mere affectionate and 
compassionate depiction of a Libo-like character were a sufficient 
cinematic gesture in lieu of dramatic particulars—and as if lending the 
entire range of characters their individualizing and contextualizing 
traits would risk viewers’ judgment of them on the basis of those 
particulars rather than on the basis of the social function of class, 
gender, and age that they’re supposed to represent. In his effort to 
make his characters universal, he makes them neutral and generic. For 
all its worthy intentions, “Roma” is little more than the righteous 
affirmation of good intentions.

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