What impresses any cineaste about Alfonso Cuaron would be the sheer diversity of his works. It ranges from sex comedies and coming-of-age dramas to science fiction, fables and fantasies. His first film, Solo con Tu Pareja (Only With Your Partner,1991), was a sex comedy, where a womanising businessman is duped by one of his lovers that he has contracted AIDS; it upsets his life for a while, but he eventually meets his ideal pair in another equally desperate woman. The success of the film brought him to Hollywood where he made his next two films A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998), both of them were adaptations from well-known literary works and showed glimmers of great directorial talent. They also had very impressive cast: for instance, Great Expectations starred the likes of Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. But it was his next film, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) that won him critical acclaim, accolades and wider international recognition. It dealt with a brief period in the life of two youngsters awakening to their sexuality, whose journey with an older woman transform their own perceptions about sex and pleasure, life and death, love and relationships.
In the next three films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) (which is also my personal favourite among Harry Potter movie series), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), Cuaron's imagination went extra-terrestrial in more than one sense. Liberated from the gravities of realism and history, these films shows a filmmaker's adventures in imaging and imagination catching up with fantasy of all kinds – if Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban gave an entirely different dimension to the magical world of Harry Potter, blending a certain kind of dark visual energy to its surreal narrative, Gravity is set in outer space, and deals with two astronauts stranded in a space shuttle in the infinite expanse of the stellar universe; at one level it could be seen as a sci-fi fantasy, and on the other, it is also a heart-wrenching story about human relationships, love and care, about how far one would go for the sake of the other, that too in an 'otherworldly' situation where there is no one or nothing as witness to your act. Children of Men is a dark film, a dystopian journey into the future of mankind, where natural and human ecology has been destroyed and humans are facing extinction. Dark, brooding and devoid of any comforting presence of nature, the film is also about diabolic workings of power that ultimately manifests in extreme forms of exclusions and genocides.
The Concentric Circles in Roma
At one level, Roma continues a few narrative streams of Children of Men – that of migrants, and the master-servant relationship; but in stark contrast to the last three films, Roma is set in a definite time and space. After his extra-terrestrial and apocalyptic journeys, in Roma, Cuaron comes back to the reality of everyday world, to real people and contexts.
The narrative has three layers, set in concentric circles as it were. At the centre is Cleo, the indigenous live-in housemaid working for a middleclass house in Mexico city. The second layer that encompasses Cleo is the family where she works which consists of Sofia and her husband Antonio, their four children and grandmother. The third layer is the world outside that is often alluded to, and which, once in a while, intrudes into the narrative. The movie theatre, hospital, streets, malls, beach, hacienda etc constitute the 'outside world' in Roma. There is the theatre where Cleo and Adela go to watch movies with their boyfriends and where Antonio, the absconding husband, is seen with his new love; there is the hospital where Antonio works, to which Sofia takes Cleo, and the streets where processions and riots happen. The family friend's hacienda near the forest where all of them go to celebrate the New Year, the outdoor martial arts training space, the beach etc are the exterior sites that appear in the narrative. All these layers exist almost independently from the rest, with the larger ones impacting on the ones within them.
Or, is the adulation for Roma a derivative or ripple effect, from the European centre to the Non-western margins? Does it mean that what Europe thinks best is The Best universally across the globe?
The first inner circle of Cleo's life is almost wholly about her everyday chores of cleaning and washing and grooming, apart from a few brief detours into her personal life like the disastrous love affair with Fermin, his betrayal and absconding, her pregnancy, and the delivery of a still-born child. The second circle of Sofia and her family is in a way, a reflection of Cleo's. There also you find a break-up and absconding – in the beginning, we find Sofia's husband Antonio leaving her for good lying to her that he is going for a conference abroad. Three generations of women live in that family, and the only man there creates just a ripple. In Cleo's life too, everything comes back to normal after the initial turmoil of Fermin's exit following the announcement of her pregnancy. She eventually finds her 'rightful' place in her employer's house. Sofia also finally comes to terms with her life, as illustrated by her doing away with the extra-large car and opting for a smaller car that fits comfortably in the narrow corridor of a porch in her house. The third outermost circle is impervious to what happens the other two and seems to move on despite and irrespective of individuals and families. There are movie-going, family get-togethers, outings as well as riots, lootings and violence out there. But the narrative sticks to the family and their point of view. What happens in the streets like the Corpus Christi massacre which has wide historical ramifications are accidents that intrude into and upset the course of the everyday, mundane life of the family and the destiny of Cleo.
The final scene at the beach where all the family huddle together hugging Cleo after she rescues her mistress' children from the waves, rounds up the narrative, when all the old scores seem to have been settled, once and for all: Sofia realises that Antonio has left her for good and shares it with her children, and Cleo overcomes her misadventure as a lover and also mother (she confesses she did not want that baby to be born). In other words, the old 'natural' order is restored, the family is reunited, with the servant back in her rightful place as a selfless and sacrificing shadow. They are all normalised and integrated into one contiguous mass of life, immutable and changeless.
Beauty vs Sublime
The Black and White images of Roma are smooth, well composed and deep-focused, inviting the viewer to contemplate and experience their exquisite duration. These 'beautified' images, layered compositions and slowed down movements create a kind of tableau effect, where the image and its content, as well as our experience of it, are smoothened out into one continuous whole. All the rough edges are flattened as if in the relentless repetition and flow of time, eventually everything seem to take on a kind of 'inevitability' or 'destiny' as if human agency is of no consequence or is negligible in the face of such timeless and relentless flow.
One could describe the experience of watching Roma as an experience of the beautiful, sanitised of any element of the sublime. All negativities are nullified, and the narrative world, so filled with and full of itself, is kept insulated from the inscrutability and unpredictability of both individual passions and the outside world
Philosopher and scholar Byung-Chul Han, in his treatise on Beauty, talks about the aesthetics of the smooth in connection with the concept of beauty. He takes off from Edmund Burke, for whom, beautiful is first of all what is smooth to touch, taste, smell or hearing; for instance, beautiful bodies provide pleasure without offering any resistance, without 'any ruggedness or confusion', and 'accompanied with an inward sense of melting and languor'. In other words, being smooth is an optimized surface without negativity. Han contrasts this idea of beauty with that of the sublime, that is 'large, massive, grim, rough and coarse. It causes pain and terror. But is healthy insofar as it violently moves the soul, while beauty causes it to relax.' For Han, the beautiful is an autoerotic feeling. It is not an object-feeling, but a subject-feeling. The pleasure in beauty is the pleasure of the subject in itself, whereas the sublime is too enormous, too huge for the imagination, and so, the subject is shocked and overwhelmed by it, and which is what constitutes the negativity of the sublime. To paraphrase Han, one could describe the experience of watching Roma as an experience of the beautiful, sanitised of any element of the sublime. All negativities are nullified, and the narrative world, so filled with and full of itself, is kept insulated from the inscrutability and unpredictability of both individual passions and the outside world.
On its surface, in terms of the portrayal of the characters, the setting, their class character, mise en scene and most strikingly in its Black and White images, Roma reminds one of neo-realist classics. There too, the characters are set in a particular social, historical and economic milieu, with the interiors and exteriors resonating to their individual class conditions as well as social bearing. But if one goes beyond the surface, the contrasts become more and more gaping and evident. While the narrative of Roma is composed, with the different layers within it integrated to each other as if in eternal bonding, in neo-realist films the layers remain in conflict and contradiction, opening up the wounds of social division and oppression. If the emphasis of Roma is upon wholeness and reconciliation, neorealist aesthetics celebrates the social tension, fragmentation and the irreconcilability of human conditions in society. If the narrative world of Roma closes in and converges towards a 'blissful' centre, neorealist classics open out and explode away from such palliative and centralising forces. If Roma is all about harmony, and harmonious whole, neorealism is all about disharmony, and conflict.
Watching Roma from India
In the Indian context, Roma also raises questions about location or the site from where it is seen and appreciated. One could understand and explain the accolades it receives in the West in general and at the Oscars especially, but one has no clue as to why a film like Roma that revolves around the life of a housemaid and her employer's family, is celebrated in a country like India, where housemaids are so ubiquitous by their presence. In our mythologies, fables, novels, and films, they constitute an invariable entity – they appear in various forms such as servants, slaves, maids, consorts, nurses; they are spies or mute witnesses, surrogate mothers or sisters; they bear the brunt of all the frustrations of the family members, and are often privy to many a family secret; in many instances, they act as messengers for estranged or confined lovers, and in many families remain lifelong companions to their masters and mistresses. What can Roma offer to someone who has at least a cursory understanding, if not actual experience, of rural or urban, Indian family life? Or, is the adulation for Roma a derivative or ripple effect, from the European centre to the Non-western margins? Does it mean that what Europe thinks best is The Best universally across the globe? In appreciating and writing about films, shouldn't we bring the issue of the location of the viewer into question? Or, while watching a movie are we shedding all our biography of self and history of one's place behind and confront a work of art as a clean slate? Here, one is reminded of Brecht's remark about his audience, he said his audience is sitting not only inside his theatre but also in the world.
It must be easy and comforting to watch Roma from a society like ours that has naturalised and institutionalised the caste system for ages, integrating the slavery of lower castes as a natural right. The celebration of the servitude of Cleo, the smoothening out of class differences between the servant and lords, their coalescing into one blissful whole, the final celebration of the family as the be all and end all of life and its insularity from history and the world…no wonder, all these spontaneously arouse our solidarity and adulation.