A few brief thoughts (involving spoilers) on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, mainly in relation to a concept that David H. Fleming and I have been developing, and about which we recently published an essay in the journal, Film-Philosophy.
In that essay, which is on Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), we posit the notion of chthulucinema, which is a term that can be used to describe movies that chime with Donna J Haraway’s notion of the chthulucene, an era that follows the so-called anthropocene and which sees the importance of humans wane on planet Earth, if not seeing humans disappear from the planet altogether.
We connect chthulucinema also with the eschatological writing of HP Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu equally signals a threat to humanity, and which is given expression in Arrival by the tentacled heptapods (which arrive not to destroy humanity per se, but which are here to announce an evolution in the human understanding of space, time and, ahem, evolution itself).
This is because the heptapods let humans know that there is other intelligent life out there in the universe (space) and that they have a completely different understanding of chronology (time). What is more, they have arrived because their species and our species are mutually dependent – with all of the drama of the film also being connected to the issue of whether linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) keeps her baby daughter, even if she knows that it will not live long (evolution).
This is about evolution because to reproduce is to evolve: children are not copies of their parents, even as we live in a world in which we seek to live forever, to stay young forever, and never to change through processes such as cloning, cosmetic surgery, and the preservation of the self in data (including the digital data of computer files and the analogue and digital data of images).
If children are not copies of their parents and if to become a parent is to let go of living forever and instead to let a child live – even if it is ‘imperfect’ and itself does not survive past childhood (the premise of Arrival) – then evolution here is also about learning to die and learning to accept death as a necessary part of (cosmic) evolution.
So… if this does not sound too barmy, then the issue becomes: what on Earth does cosmic evolution and the like have to do with Roma?
Well, we can start by suggesting that Cuarón has form in terms of dealing with such issues. To take perhaps his two most famous examples, Children of Men (USA/UK/Japan, 2006) and Gravity (UK/USA, 2013) both deal with the issue of childbirth, in that the former is about a world where children are no longer born and the latter is about an astronaut attempting to recover from the loss of her child.
[Notably, First Man (Damien Chazelle, USA/Japan, 2018) also feels compelled to talk about the conquest of space in relation to the trauma suffered at the loss of a child… as if space travel were the quest for immortality in the face of, and perhaps in a bid to deny, the truth of mortality. As Chazelle whitened jazz in both Whiplash (USA, 2014) and La La Land (USA/Hong Kong, 2016), here, in an era in which cinema tries to explore stories such as the one told in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016), he also makes space travel white and male – as per the film’s title – as he celebrates the immortality of conquest in contradistinction to the mortality of becoming.]
To return to Cuarón, Roma is indeed at times quite consciously referential to the director’s earlier work – notably during a long sequence shot during riots in Mexico City in 1971, recalling the main sequence shot in the Bexhill riot zone in Children of Men, and during a cinema visit during which Cleo (the astounding Yalitza Aparicio) watches Marooned (John Sturges, USA, 1969), a film from the pre-CGI era that bears a strong similarity in its premise to Gravity.
But if Roma is something of a summation of Cuarón’s work to date (the story of servants also brings with it shades of A Little Princess (USA, 1995) and Great Expectations (USA, 1998), while the portrait of class tension in Mexico equally recalls Y tu Mamá también (Mexico, 2001)), how does it connect with the chthulucene and related issues?
Well, about three quarters of the way through the film, well-to-do Distrito Federal mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) takes her children and their housemaid Cleo to the seaside.
I say well-to-do, but really Sofía is struggling: she has been abandoned by her husband (Fernando Grediaga) and money is getting tight. Nonetheless, she still runs a household with four kids and two housemaids, including Cleo, who has just lost a child at birth.
Sympathising with Cleo’s loss, Sofía promises Cleo a break on the beaches of Tuxpan, where she will not be asked to carry out any of her normal tasks of servitude.
As the group arrives at a coastal resort, they pass a large image on a wall of an octopus, before then being in a seaside diner where octopus also appears on the menu.
I am not saying that Cuarón included these details because he consciously believes what follows. But from the perspective of chthulucinema, which is a cinema of tentacles and thinking about the world from a non-human, more invertebrate perspective, the presence of these octopus references is telling.
For – and no more than this – they simply are reminders of alternative lifeforms, but whose biology and anatomy is so vastly different from ours that to ponder them does give pause to our everyday assumptions about time, space and evolution… and which does ask us to consider how an intelligent alien (which is how octopuses are often described) might perceive the world in a fashion that is completely different from the human.
(Octopuses and octopus-like creatures are common in Mexican cinema, as Fleming and I discuss in what we hope to be the book-version argument of our Arrival essay, nominally called Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia, which title means with a doff of the cap to Vilém Flusser ‘the squid cinema from hell,’ and which takes in other films like Cefalópodo/Cephalopod (Rubén Imaz, Mexico, 2010), La región salvage/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016) and Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibañez, Mexico, 2018). I might mention here how Roma also seems indebted at least a little bit to Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico, 2014), with its long sequence shots and images of civil unrest.)
However, while the presence of the octopus in Roma simply helps us to think about ‘intelligent aliens’ that are not us and which perhaps stand alongside and might help to evolve the contemporary human world, which we might otherwise describe as a patriarchy, it does also tie in with a narrative that is about children/childbirth, and which involves fantasies of transcending the planet (Marooned), changing the current structure of society (civil unrest) and perhaps even creating a matriarchy (Sofía and Cleo bonding) instead of a patriarchy.
It is not that Roma is obvious or mawkish. Indeed, problems remain as at the last Cleo returns to her position of servitude, and the loss of her child is not really mitigated by a weekend in the sun (where she ends up nearly drowning as she tries to save Sofía’s children from getting swept away by tidal currents).
Nonetheless, Cuarón is clearly investigating issues surrounding what another world might look like or be – as perhaps is befitting of someone who shares a culture with one of the great childbirth novels, namely Carlos Fuentes’s Cristóbal Nonato/Christopher Unborn (1987). He does this by studying a period of transition within a family as a nation also undergoes transition. And he does this by exploring what it means to reproduce – or not.
With the heartbreaking loss of Cleo’s child, Cuarón would seem to paint a bleak picture of a world where change may be hard to achieve, and where the poor really are sacrificed for the ongoing benefit (‘eternal life’) of the rich.
But as the octopus’ presence suggests, and as Cleo herself emerges from the sea with Sofía’s children, and as the unrest continues in the streets, if change may not have happened yet, it nonetheless is on the way – and we shall experience new worlds that currently are alien to us.
And this is because while Cleo suffers, she is also indestructible. Not in the sense that she is immortal, but in the sense that – and I am not sure I can overstate the magnificence of Aparicio’s performance here – she cannot be destroyed by hardship, even as she undergoes terrible hardship after terrible hardship. Cleo (and Apricio’s performance) are so strong. They are strength. And even if not now, they are the vision of a more just world.
Or something like that.