Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

At Alan Jacobs’s urging I started watching Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, recently released on Netflix. For now I’ll just quote his assessment, which I agree with:

… a masterpiece, one of the great films of our time and probably of any time. There is nothing about it that’s not masterful, from the composition, lighting, and movement of the camera, to the pacing, to the narrative structure, to the acting — it beggars belief that Yalitza Aparicio had never acted before. Iris Murdoch once wrote of the Gospels that “they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” That’s how I felt watching Roma.

It’s one of those movies I’m able to view on several levels at once, thinking about the photography, the staging, the setting (early 1970s Mexico City), the history, the texture of everything … all while staying engrossed in the story. I’ll be rewatching it several time, in admiration.

But there is one aspect, emphasized in the early section, that nearly jarred me out of my engrossed viewing. The central character, Cleo, is a servant girl who works for a well-to-do family (husband is a doctor). The first of many slow pans in the film takes in the lower level of the house, quite upscale … but as you watch you see that it is also a dump, with clothes and toys and food cartons and cigarette butts scattered over the upscale surfaces. Later you see that the upstairs is also a dump, particularly the kids’ rooms. But you also see Cleo and the other servant girl steadily cleaning, washing and folding laundry, making beds, scooping up dog turds from the enclosed patio and washing it down … and scooping and washing again as the dog lays down more turds. Several times Cleo is disparaged or yelled at about the mess, particularly the dog turds. She listens impassively, without comment.

And my viewing was nearly derailed by the voice in my head muttering, Why don’t you people pick up after yourselves? Too many hot buttons pressed at once!

I’ve always been sensitive to the danger posed by privilege and entitlement, how it can easily send you into a downward character spiral where you engage others to do the dirty work for you, then expect it, then take it as your natural right. Watching this perfectly ordinary family require the smallest things to be done for them, then getting irritated when the servants can’t keep up with the demands … and watching the servants absorb the scolding as just another part of the endless stream of unreasonable, unachievable expectations laid on them … well!

And it didn’t help that I am naturally inclined to do just the opposite. I’ve always struggled with being overly independent—no need to trouble yourself, I can handle it—and have had to learn to ask for help when I need it, and to accept help even when I don’t if it’s the loving thing for the other person. And I have learned that. But I’ve also learned that it can be just as loving to go the extra mile for others, to do a bit of mundane work just so the other person won’t need to, and to not make extra work for the other person by leaving things undone. It’s even been a discipline at times—taking the trash out or unloading the dishwasher when I see it needs doing, rather than acting like I didn’t see it or expecting someone else to do it because it’s “their job.”

So I was unfortunately more upset about that than the movie required, not being the focus of the story (though it’s definitely a factor). But the movie is great, and won me over after twenty minutes or so. It’s the sort of thing you can watch in sections, so I still haven’t finished it. But I recommend it.

2 thoughts on “Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

  1. I’d really like to see it, but unfortunately the fact that it’s on Netflix means I’m probably not in a rush to do so, LOL.

    I have had life phases where I’ve had to outsource cleaning, but my feeling about it was always that it wasn’t fair to outsource it for less than its cost to me, i.e., if it takes me two hours to clean a house and my hourly rate works out to $40 an hour, then that is what I need to pay the cleaner. Now that I’m the unpaid cleaner, I have to say, it’s really enraging not to have my work taken seriously / have it treated like it’s just my job to keep cleaning up messes. This happens partly because the unspoken consensus of my parents’ marriage specified that it *was* my mother’s job and not his, and partly because his stroke has seriously damaged aspects of his cognition. But it’s infuriating and it wears on my empathy for him a lot.

  2. Oh — and that happens to me at movies all the time. The beginning chapter of Guardian of the Galaxy is about the superhero’s mother’s death and I saw it about six months after my mother’s death and I more or less couldn’t tell you what happened in the first two thirds of the movie. (trivial example)

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