Misleading Proximity and Audiovisual (Un)Balance in Roma

 

An Essay by Felipe González-Silva

 

AbstractAuthor Bio

“Para Libo.” With this dedication – “for Libo” – Alfonso Cuarón concludes his celebrated 2018 film Roma. Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actress, plays Cleo, a Mixtec domestic worker who is the cinematic counterpart of the real-life Libo, an employee of Cuarón’s family in 1970s Mexico. Roma follows Cleo as she juggles a dissatisfying love life, an unwanted pregnancy, and the needs and whims of her bosses. The film’s closing dedication, then, appears to express gratitude to a woman whose crucial role in Cuarón’s upbringing had not received adequate appreciation. Some critics focus on the film’s significance as an effort to pay an overdue emotional debt. Indeed, “love poem” and “love letter” are two expressions commonly used in film reviews from publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair. Besides reading it as a celebration of Libo, reviewers praise Roma’s acknowledgment of the historical context that defines the lives of its protagonists, connecting the private with the public and unveiling their interactions. For instance, Peters Travers argues, “By putting [Cleo’s] story in the context of a broken family surviving in a broken world, he has paid her the most heartfelt of tributes.”

Similarly, most academic work on Roma recognizes the film’s gratitude to Libo (via Cleo) and underscores the interaction between dichotomies such as domestic/public, ordinary/exceptional and foreground/background. For Emily Hastie, for instance, Cuarón and the viewer recognize “Cleo as the center of a story of everyday life in the midst of political revolution and horror” (57). Similarly, Gabrielle O’Brien argues that “While the film quietly alludes to political tensions, this is always off centre stage, behind the scenes” (12). Through textual analysis, this paper complicates Roma’s purported balance between dichotomies, reframing the film as a perpetual narrative struggle and exploring the audiovisual tension between Cleo and the world. Throughout the film, Cleo not only fights the classist, racist, and sexist efforts that threaten her well-being and desires, but she also competes for a place in the film itself. In other words, small- and large-scale events jeopardize the protagonist’s modest centrality in Roma. A massacre, a martial arts demonstration, the near-death of a child, and a fire are a few examples of narrative tangents that, in their grandiosity, pull the focus away from Cleo. Roma intimates that cinema—including the director’s own filmography—tends to ignore “smaller” stories about women, domesticity, and the mundane. More importantly, however, the film deems audience viewing practices complicit in the relegation of some stories. Cuarón invites viewers to filter excessive amounts of information and to choose which elements to prioritize. This assigned responsibility highlights the potential of Roma to reflect on the film’s world as well as the “real” world. In a sense, Cuarón and the audience “revive” the past through the director’s memories to then realize that such an endeavor does not liberate Cleo and Libo but rather suffocate them.

The film’s clearest articulation of the tension between foreground/background and other dichotomies happens around the 37-minute mark, during the scene set in a cinema where La grande vadrouille (1966) is being projected. Due to the room’s darkness and the absence of an establishing shot, the viewer might initially miss Cleo and Fermín, who sit with their backs to the camera while they kiss. In deep focus, the camera places the couple in the foreground left and the screen in the background right. This framing allows the viewer’s gaze to wander, following any ongoing action. Additionally, the sound mixing balances the loudness of both events, thus allowing the spectator to divide their attention while also permitting overlap. On the one hand, the audience might focus on Cleo, assuming that her presence is the most significant element in the scene because the film has established her as the protagonist. On the other hand, the split screen encourages the viewer to sometimes follow the French film despite the subtitles’ illegibility. Indeed, the French movie’s playful tone and the audience’s laughter invite attention to the screen, which at times appears more captivating than the repeated and somewhat mechanical kissing. Soon, Cleo stops Fermín to reveal that her period is late. Unconcerned, the man carries on kissing her until Cleo interrupts him to insist that she might be pregnant. “Ah, well. That’s good, right?” responds Fermín, which temporarily comforts Cleo. At last, the couple stops kissing to focus on the film, prompting Roma’s audience to follow suit. A few seconds later, however, Fermín leaves for the bathroom, promising to return soon. As the French film ends, Cleo remains quiet and concerned. The end credits and the closing of the theater curtains draw the attention unambiguously back to the woman, who stands up and looks around, still hoping to see her lover return. Eventually, she picks up his jacket and leaves the screen. Fermín is gone, not to reappear until Cleo finds him in the outskirts of the city.

While Cleo sits alone in the cinema, her stillness and lack of action compete with an alternate focal point, the French film, now reaching its climax. For around 50 seconds, Cleo alternates her gaze between the film screen and offscreen right, where she expects Fermín to return from. The narrative progression seems to pause during this long take, persuading the audience to find focuses elsewhere. For example, as well as the film on the screen, a couple sitting a few rows ahead of Cleo invites our attention, as so do two people walking in the deep foreground. Regarding the seeming correlation between prominence and significance, V.F. Perkins argues that in film, “Emphasis depends on the establishment of a norm, which is given by the spectator’s relationship to narrative” (127). He states that spectators first take in structural information (i.e., information concerning narrative development) and then the “perception of less specifically functional information increases” (127). In Roma’s movie theater scene, the structural information relates to the revelation of Cleo’s pregnancy, which the audience learns in just a few seconds. Later, however, the camera lingers for a very long time, inviting the viewer to focus on that “less specifically functional information” that Perkins mentions. More importantly still is Cuarón’s tendency to question prominence itself in film. Cleo is indeed the protagonist, but her visibility in Roma is not to be taken for granted.

 

As mentioned earlier, several scholars argue that the use of deep focus allows “superimposed” stories to coexist (Marzorati and Pombo 54). But what does coexistence entail and how does it function in Roma’s overall grammar? Additionally, others insist on the purported existence of a “balance between planes—political, historical, social, and aesthetic” (Hastie 57). Contrary to those readings, however, the film does not settle for simply adding different layers to explore how they interact and inform each other. Certainly, the inclusion of events such as the Corpus Christi Massacre speaks to the impact of history on the film’s plot and on Cuarón’s memories, but their presence exceeds the functional and informational. As the cinema scene suggests, Roma often grants similar audiovisual and narrative weight to two or more elements simultaneously, and those sources typically compete rather than complement each other. The director wants the audience to see and value Cleo, to connect with her pain at being left alone after revealing her pregnancy – but he still gives us chances to wander around visually and sonically, even during this pivotal moment.

Although the movie theater scene offers the most explicit exploration of the uneasy interaction between dichotomies, many other moments in Roma also complicate these relationships. Near the end of the film, Cleo’s boss, Sofia, plans a post-divorce trip with her children and Cleo. One day at the beach, Sofía and her eldest, Toño, leave the other three kids under Cleo’s supervision. Ignoring their mother’s orders, Paco and Sofi go into the ocean, which drags them away from the shore. Cleo soon notices their absence and runs to save Sofi from drowning. Once the three return to the beach, Sofia and Toño arrive and learn what has happened. Immediately, the children announce that Cleo saved their lives. The traumatic moment prompts the protagonist to reveal that she did not want her baby, who died during delivery, to be born. Sofia and the children respond by expressing their love and embracing Cleo. The narrative focus, then, swiftly changes from the near-death of Sofi to the need to comfort Cleo. Despite the confession’s influence, the characters literally deny Cleo’s visibility by surrounding her in embrace. When analyzing the film’s main poster, which pictures the incident, Carmelo Esterrich states, “It is almost impossible to find Cleo because the family embrace makes her vanish” (216). Similarly to her pregnancy confession, this moment marks one of the few instances when Cleo reveals a personal and crucial piece of information about her life, but this revelation is trivialized by her audiovisual and narrative surroundings; she is presented backlit and her words are slightly obscured by the continuous roar of the sea. In a sense, the poster acknowledges the film’s violence on its protagonist and the related responsibility of its director. There is indeed no balance, and her prominence in the film, which we would assume to be a given, is allowed to fade. Ultimately, the family’s expression of extreme physical proximity interestingly produces more distance from Cleo and her autonomy.

Consequently, Cuarón constantly challenges spectators to make decisions concerning the direction of our gaze and the investment of our attention. Will our eyes be drawn to the fast-paced action/comedy film, the terrifying earthquake, and the Corpus Christ Massacre? Or will we focus on Cleo, especially when she stands quietly to “simply” think or take in the air and sun? The director refuses to resolve the audiovisual tension between contending forces, thus providing opportunities for further reflection. How do our viewing practices within and across films contribute to the neglect of certain narratives? What social conditions would enable or at least inspire the collapse of hierarchy that suffocates “ordinary” stories and voices?

The tension is, however, not restricted to the film’s universe. Cuarón also examines his complicit role as director—and that of the cinema industry in general—in invisibilizing Cleo. He admits that cinema (particularly the films he has made, because this is personal too) tends to ignore those “smaller” stories, those about women, domesticity, the “mundane,” and so on. For instance, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman forces the viewer to remain focused on the protagonist, to appreciate her gestures, her care, her humanity while other narratives remain hidden or, at least, implied. Akerman also uses deep field throughout the film, but Jeanne’s surroundings ostensibly do not demand excessive emphasis. While Akerman’s focus on Jeanne is mandatory for the viewer, Cuarón gives the viewer a choice (or a series of choices from one scene or shot to another) and, at the same time, asks them to reflect on their viewing practices and their roles when presented with these stories. The director allows the audience the possibility of choosing what audiovisual elements to focus on and which to discard.

Ultimately, it is Cuarón’s film—down to the directing, cinematography, editing, writing—and we cannot grab the camera to see something else. The film ends where the director decides, the shots are cut when he decides, the characters do what he decides. “When we enter the cinema, we have to accept the implications of a controlled viewpoint,” Perkins argues, and the director “may control our perception so that his vision and emphases dominate our response to the created world” (124). Still, Roma manages to allow a kind of engagement that is quite rare in film. Cuarón is aware of his control but also provides the opportunity for the audience to participate. Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game experiments similarly, but it favors a more frantic approach to narrative input; viewers may not follow every action because the characters cannot stop moving and all of them head in different directions. Although Cuarón doesn’t barrage the viewer with constant movement in the same way as The Rules of the Game, he does create a range of audiovisual elements that pull the viewer in different directions simultaneously. He maintains a great unresolvable tension in apparent quietude. For the most part, Roma is deceptively calm and even timid, but Cuarón articulates the tension throughout the film regardless of the particular tone or pacing of any given scene.

In a short sequence – but a crucial one for reflecting on Roma’s place in Cuarón’s oeuvre and cinema in general – Cleo and Sofía’s mother, Teresa, walk the children to the movie theater to watch Marooned (1969). The sequence inserts a 30-second clip from the film, which several scholars and critics have rightly connected to Cuarón’s Gravity (2013); it shows an astronaut as he tries to rescue his peer in space. Hastie, for instance, highlights the scene as an exercise of memory tied to the director’s stated interest in the relationship between his past and present (56). Certainly, the presence of Marooned in Roma allows the director to underscore a particular experience that influenced his life and work and remains relevant in the present. I argue, however, that the connection between Marooned/Gravity and Roma extends beyond a critical consideration of the past and its effects on the present. Significantly, this is the only moment in the film where a non-diegetic visual insert interrupts Roma’s audiovisual world. The clip occupies the whole frame and, therefore, Cuarón does not allow Roma’s audience to see Cleo, Teresa, the kids, or the other spectators. Quite literally, Marooned (or better, Gravity) invades Cleo’s cinematic universe and threatens to displace her status as the protagonist. In a sense, therefore, the woman fights for a place not only in Roma but in Cuarón’s body of work, which earlier privileged Gravity, a purportedly more eventful and exciting film. The extraordinariness of outer space overshadows the “commonness” of Cleo (and, therefore, Libo). Additionally, Cuarón implies that his work of memory fails to redeem Cleo from her oppression.

At first glance, Roma seeks and achieves harmony between different planes, whether social, aesthetic, or audiovisual. Sergio de la Mora, for instance, states that “Roma keeps politics in its peripheral vision, showing how domestic and personal politics reverberates with the public and exterior” (46). Apparently, then, the presence of politics, the public, the exterior, and so on in the film serves as a backdrop that trickles into the personal/domestic and produces certain effects. As some of the scenes examined here suggest, however, the film proposes a more complex and certainly a tenser interaction with space and memory. Several authors have analyzed the numerous (and interrelated) forms of oppression that affect Cleo, but they have largely ignored the reflection Roma proposes about the complicit relation the director and the audience have with erasing or ignoring “ordinary” voices. Cuarón seems to admit that he cannot tell Cleo’s story for her. Ultimately, Roma is an exercise of the director’s memory and not Libo’s. De la Mora then suggests that the film’s last line, “I have so much to tell you,” which Cleo says to Adela, her coworker, imply more than a summary of the beach trip with the family. The author wonders whether those lines anticipate “A new story, perhaps, for a new cinema” (51). But what is this “new cinema” if not something that already exists and has thrived throughout the history of film but the industry and audience alike insist on disregarding? Would Libo’s own (cinematic) retelling of her life approximate a more “accurate” account of the past?

 

Works Cited

Akerman, Chantal. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The Criterion Collection, 1975.

Cuarón, Alfonso. Gravity. Warner Bros., 2013.

—. Roma. Netflix, 2018.

de la Mora, Sergio. “Roma: Reparation Versus Exploitation.” Film Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 4, 2019, pp. 46–53, doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/FQ.2019.72.4.46.

Esterrich, Carmelo. “Maternidades ‘heróicas’ En Roma, de Alfonso Cuarón.” Cuadernos Del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación, vol. 91, 2019, pp. 211–18.

Hastie, Amelie. “The Vulnerable Spectator: An Act of Will, a Testimony of Love: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.” Film Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 4, 2019, pp. 54–60,
doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/FQ.2019.72.4.54.

Lawson, Richard. “Roma Is Alfonso Cuarón’s Epic, Personal Masterpiece.” Vanity Fair, 1 Sept. 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/09/roma-is-alfonso-cuarons-epic-personal-masterpiece.

Marzorati, Zulema, and Mercedes Pombo. “Violencia Pública y Privada En Roma.” Cuadernos Del Centro de Estudios de Diseño y Comunicación, vol. 24, no. 108, 2021, pp. 46–58.

Morgenstern, Joe. “Sublime Domesticity: The Intimate Grandeur That Is Roma.” The Wall Street Journal, 21 Nov. 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/sublime-domesticity-the-intimate-grandeur-that-is-roma-1542820986?reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink.

O’Brien, Gabrielle. “Remembrance as Reconstruction: Excavating Memory in Roma.” Screen Education, vol. 96, pp. 8–15.

Perkins, V. F. Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies. Da Capo Press, 1993.

Renoir, Jean. La Règle Du Jeu. The Criterion Collection, 1939.

Travers, Peter. “Roma Review: Alfonso Cuaron Makes His Masterpiece.” Rolling Stone, 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/roma-movie-review-758113/.

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