A deep look into “Roma”

At the urging of my friend John Kirby, I saw Roma at the IFC here in New York the other night, with some close mutual friends.
One of them admired it, but was put off by what he took to be the film's simplistic slant on men, which struck him as gratuitously #MeToo, and so a flaw in the director's vision of the system c. 1971. He emailed John, explaining his objections in detail (with me on copy).
John wrote back as follows—a careful reading based on his two viewings of the film (which, like all great movies, must be watched several times). I find it so compelling, and enlightening, that I asked John to let me share it with this list; and he agreed.
Also, if there's any way for you to see it on the big screen, as opposed to watching it on Netflix, do yourself that favor. 

Dear _,

I’m sorry you didn’t dig the film and I can understand some of your points. When I first saw it I knew nothing about it and I squirmed in my seat through what I then thought were the over-indulgent pans across everyday life. But at some point the thing grabbed a hold of me and didn’t let go…

I see the film as the mad slow-fast rush of life at many levels glimpsed through the eyes of the salt of the earth: a simple, solid, peasant woman who gives her existence over to others. The political-economic struggles of the time, personal and national and global, will not be, cannot be, her direct intellectual concern. She has no time to read El Universal and it is not her place– nor is she brought into her mistresses confidence enough– to speculate about her employers’ marriage. But the politics of the time overtake her nonetheless, at home and on the streets. She endures it all, the classist slights that will continue forever because of her indigenous heritage, the lack of mobility that makes her a subject of scorn even to her boyfriend in the end (‘Servant!” he spits) once he has had enjoyed himself with her and she has become a pregnant liability.

A word about him. Yes, he has become a fascist thug, but the film explains how, just as it explains everything else we need to know, if only by means of its subtle warp and weave. He tells Cleo he grew up poor, abandoned, beaten on by his extended family. He found meaning and structure studying a martial discipline, and then somehow, we and she can only guess, his group of students was enlisted (was it from the beginning?) into a group of paramilitary cadets in the control of the state, a secret army, which in turn is overseen by a “gringo”, who stands impassively in his West Point
tee-shirt, watching the boys train. Through this we dimly see (as Cleo dimly sees it) the domination of Empire, the Rome beyond Roma, the world far above Cleo represented in the ever present jets passing overhead. Young, ignorant, abandoned Fermin was simply easy clay poured into a mold, given the semblance of empowerment and used as a club against the leftist intelligentsia… the idealist college students (they are Fermin’s age, no doubt!) who had enough money and education to dream bigger until they were massacred into submission. We can easily see how Fermin could be led to resent them.

We don’t know how many dates they’ve had, (we see her on the phone with him at some point before they go to the movies). For Cleo, love is catch as catch can; there is her day off and a heavily circumscribed social scene: Fermin is the cousin of the cook’s boyfriend. She and Fermin indeed go off to a hotel and have sex. Can we blame the poor thing for wanting to
be touched? A virgin in her 20’s? I don’t see directorial homoeroticism in the bedroom scene but a typical, silly postcoital situation, a natural one between any set of lovers. In this case as in so many others throughout the ages he displays himself… he wants to impress her with his prowess and reaffirm it to himself so he removes the shower curtain rod and does his martial routine, naked and more than slightly ridiculous… she can barely contain her laughter. But he has been infected with superman syndrome, given a little power which has gone a long way to making him the definition of “toxically masculine”.

As for the doctor-husband, the parallel but secondary story, isn’t that a tale as old as the hills? Professional man has mid-life crisis and runs off with young mistress (we even see him running and playing in the streets with her past his boys and Cleo, something I missed the first time). He’s sick of the screaming kids and the mess and the dogshit everywhere and just the
boring daily grind of it all. And while I admit that it is beyond sociopathic that the guy doesn’t send any money (he’s too busy buying scuba equipment in Acapulco) he does communicate with the children, we hear… he just lies to them about where he is in his letters. As for her response when it is finally a fait a compli…” The Great Adventure”… Well, what else is she going to do? She does indeed have to “stay strong for the kids”, and make them feel like everything is going to be ok, maybe even great! They know it isn’t… the eldest weeps uncontrollably. But yet, it will have to be somehow.

As for the harrowing scene on the beach, I didn’t see Cleo as suicidal, just sad and enduring, but always attentive to her responsibilities as the mother-on-the-ground. And I didn’t see the mother as subconsciously wanting her kids dead, it was just an instance of typical 70’s irresponsibility, which could happen even today. The kids beg and plead “let us play!”, the
mother has stuff to do (the stuff dad is supposed to do! check the tires! But…no dad!), she tells them to stay in the shallows—no one realizes how strong the undertow is. What a harrowing moment! And so emotionally charged that it finally allows Cleo to express her secret shame, what’s been nagging at her for so long: she had wanted her baby dead.

As for the baby scene: what chaos in that Mexico City hospital! It was just as you might imagine it. Clearly, motherhood is not a social priority. A brief moment of medical kindness- “do you want to meet your baby?” which was likely progress in the modern hospital system of the time–in the very old days she might have given birth at home and lain with the dead baby for a decent period of mourning) and then of course baby needs to be taken to the morgue and the pediatrician (as opposed to her OB/GYN) needs to move on. And her old boss, the doctor-dad, was there, being sweet for a moment, but not actually giving enough of a crap to go into delivery with her. Also remember: this is a true story, about the writer-director’s nanny. This happened to her, and it is not hard for me to imagine it at all.

A final note: when the now fatherless family returns from the beach, what has the father taken? The bookshelves. They are like the structure or edifice that a father can provide, and the family’s knowledge and heart can reside there… but he has removed them, like yanking the skeleton from a body. The eldest children notice: “this looks terrible!” but the youngest say “What bookshelves?” Clearly, dad hadn’t made much of an impression in later years.

And Cleo, the heroine, returns to her duties, to her needy, privileged charges. She can bear anything, it seems. Did everyone catch when the strong man, Professor Z, visits the paramilitary camp, and stands on his one leg and touches his fingers together with his eyes closed, perfectly balanced, that the only other one who can pull it off is Cleo? She is a pillar, the axis of the world, Atlas, Rhea, Gaia. The humans, especially the men-children, beat on her relentlessly, but she abides. Roma goes way beyond #metoo, which, I should say, whatever its media-propelled excesses, does at times make some pretty good points. But when Roma ends, it is on a shot of Cleo climbing up to her rooftop washing, closer to heaven, yes, and the endlessly passing
jets of a global matrix that has the whole world in its net.


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