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

Richard Fidler rfidler at ncf.ca
Sat Dec 22 12:35:58 MST 2018

A similar take on Roma, along with some other films of 2018...

21 Dec 2018
The Globe and Mail 

For women in film, 2018 was a year of dirty laundry
By Kate Taylor

Movies such as Roma aim to celebrate their female characters, but can’t escape the limitations of being told from a male perspective

 Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white drama Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a housekeeper in 1970s Mexico, and is dedicated to Cuaron’s childhood nanny, ‘Libo.’ The film is visually exquisite and Oscar-worthy, but it fails to fully examine Cleo – or Libo’s – life experience.

As the year draws to a close, I have been catching up with the rave reviews of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, the black-andwhite drama based on the director’s memories of Mexico City in the 1970s and dedicated to “Libo,” his childhood nanny. Focused on the stoical Cleo, the hardworking Mixtec housekeeper and caregiver for a family of six that is coming apart at the seams, it’s visually exquisite, a shoo-in for the best-foreign-language Oscar, and a film sure to reinvigorate complaints that subtitled movies are so seldom nominated for best picture.

But as critics discussed the almost mystical imagery surrounding the self-sacrificing Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who proves ready to risk her life for her employer’s children in the film’s melodramatic climax, I found few reviews that echoed my own reactions. I can be a literal-minded viewer and couldn’t help noticing that nobody in this household ever walks the dog– and that in Mexico in 1970, domestic labour was apparently so cheap that upper middle- families had maids rather than washing machines.

There is an early scene in Roma in which Cleo climbs to the roof to scrub the laundry by hand and we see other maids, on neighbouring rooftops, doing the same, hanging the clothes to dry in the sun. The youngest of the family joins the servant and, annoyed a this older brother over a gunfight game gone wrong, plays at being dead. To coax him out of his sulks, Cleo joins him and the two lay together on a skylight, faces to the sun. “I like being dead,” Cleo says.

Writing on that scene in a sensitive review in The New Yorker, critic Anthony Lane commented on the nanny’s empathetic ability to enter the child’s imagination. I had taken her devotion to her charges for granted; my main reaction was that her remark indicated this was probably her first and only chance that day to put her feet up. Few reviews of Roma dwell on the exhausting domestic labour Cleo performs, giving Cuaron a pass as he idolizes his own servant in a way that exalts her without fully examining her experience.

Cleo was but one of 2018’s magical nannies; the other was Mary Poppins in a rather different but no less popular outing. Whether they were maids, mistresses or monarchs, there were many powerful female protagonists on film this year, from the deceptively self-effacing literary spouse Glenn Close played in The Wife to Saoirse Ronan’s fiery title character in Mary Queen of Scots. Hollywood wisdom has long held that male characters are safer bet sat the box office because men prefer male stories while female audiences will come along for the ride. In November, however, a study sponsored by the U.S. talent agency Creative Artists busted that myth, finding that from 2014-17 movies of all budget levels with a female lead actually generated more money at the box office. In 2018, as women turned criminal in action movies such as Widows and Ocean’s 8, there was a strong sense that female was the flavour of the year – but, of course, both those titles were directed by men.

In September, accepting an Emmy for directing Transparent, the TV show’s creator Jill Soloway issued a call to “Topple the patriarchy!” That slogan is actually a movement Soloway has launched, and if you check out its website, you’ll be surprised by its demands: that no men be allowed to make movies or TV shows (or any other art form) for 50 years. It’s more a political provocation than a practical suggestion. The point is that the forms, the images and the vocabulary of what we see on our screens have been shaped by an overwhelmingly male creative class to the point where it may be very difficult for other creators to imagine their own ways of seeing and telling within that system.

The manifesto also oversimplifies authorship: Auteur theory to the contrary, most movies aren’t made by a single (male) genius.

Take two recent girl-power art films as examples. The revisionist Mary Queen of Scots is based on a script written by a man (Beau Willimon) from a book written by a man (John Guy), but the film is directed by a woman, Josie Rourke. This team has produced an unconvincing attempt to cast Mary Stuart as a feminist heroine for our times, hampered by the character’s erratic decision-making and belief in her divine right to various thrones.

Meanwhile, The Favourite, a movie about another British queen, was written by a woman and a man (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) and directed by a man, Yorgos Lanthimos. Its anachronism is conscious and witty as it examines the power struggle between two scheming ladies-in-waiting – Rachel Weisz’s Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham – and their unhappy pawn, Queen Anne herself, a figure of much pathos created by Olivia Colman.

What I liked about The Favourite is that all three women are bad: selfish, manipulative and cruel – rather like men. Despite the dialogue’s contemporary zingers and Lanthimos’s baroque staging, the characters seemed more recognizably human than Ronan’s upright Mary alternating between the supercilious and the sympathetic.

Real women, or perhaps more thoughtful examinations of female experience, can be found in the furthest corners of global cinema. One overlooked gem that showed up this year was Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, an Indonesian magic-realist revenge fantasy in which a woman who has been raped by a thief travels many miles to a police station carrying his severed head in a cloth bag. Mouly Surya directed Marsha Timothy as the frightened but unwavering Marlina.

And, as a significant counterpoint to Cuaron’s film, consider another Mexican film, The Good Girls. It is set only a decade later in a bourgeois neighbourhood that looks much like the one called Roma, but here, director Alejandra Marquez Abella only presumes to know the lady of the house. Ilse Salas plays the pampered and snobby Sofia, watching in disbelief as the Mexican currency crisis destroys her husband’s business and her lifestyle. Her servants are minor figures in a quietly satirical drama: Mainly, they complain they have not been paid. (The little-heralded film, based on Guadalupe Loaeza’s novel of the same title, was shown briefly at the Toronto International Film Festival; so far, no word on when it might show up again in Canada.) It’s not that anyone really wants to prevent Cuaron from making movies for one year, let alone 50, it’s that Surya, Abella and their ilk need to be making more movies and getting more recognition for them.
The year 2020 will mark the 125th anniversary of cinema, an artistic progress overwhelmingly controlled by men. At the end of Roma, the family returns from a beach holiday and settles back into the house while Cleo climbs the exterior stairs to the roof to start the laundry. As she reaches the top, she simply disappears from view, as though she has ascended into the sky itself. Then, Cuaron’s dedication to Libo appears on the screen. It’s a beautiful moment, but in 2018, beatifying the person who washes your socks feels like a poor solution to cinema’s long history of dirty laundry.

-----Original Message-----
From: Marxism [mailto:marxism-bounces at lists.csbs.utah.edu] On Behalf Of Louis Proyect via Marxism
Sent: Saturday, December 22, 2018 1:27 PM
To: rfidler at ncf.ca
Subject: [Marxism] There’s a Voice Missing in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”

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(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".)

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