‘ROMA’s Unseen Beauty and its Complex Relationship to Awards Season

LATINO CIRCUIT: Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, “Roma,” needs no introduction to seasoned awards watchers. It has been an undeniable contender for serious Academy recognition since making appearances at Venice and Telluride. The subtle black-and-white film, with its profoundly revealing story and textured realism, certainly will benefit from awards attention, even though it will not need it to be remembered as brilliant. That duality—between needing but, perhaps, wanting not—defines the story at the heart of the film. At least as much as it does its relationship to The Hollywood Gold Machine.

You would be hard pressed to find many who grew up in Mexico in the last sixty years who did not experience at least one facet of the society that Cuarón draws in “Roma.” Most families from the middle class had a relationship with some form of a live-in maid. That is the relationship Doña Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her family had to Cleo (Yalitzia Aparicio). The other half, of course, lived the domestic worker portion. Perhaps they experience that of the ambitious working class to which Cleo’s boyfriend or obstetrician belonged.

At a gala for the film last month, I told Cuarón: “Thank you. Your story is my story.” He astutely replied: “It is most of ours, isn’t it?”

This dichotomy, between the haves and the have-nots, transcends the basic outline of the Mexico Cuarón conjures with his 65 mm lens. It infuses, for example, Cuarón’s own memory of boyhood. That boy caught uncomfortably between the joyful innocence of a child who plays make-believe with his past, dead self, and the painful reality of parental discord. The dualism also floods, importantly, the fabric of Mexican society. Unassuming people that laugh at silly double-entendres on late night television. The shockingly violent land that laid waste to the dreams of a generation of students with the lead of bullets.

And it is the centerpiece, obviously, of the relationship at the core of “Roma”‘s story. It’s about the clashing ways in which Doña Sofia puts Cleo down while unfailingly embracing her as family.

It is at least somewhat amusing, then, that “Roma”’s own relationship to broader movie history mirrors that of its heroines and subjects. “Roma” will always exist along two complimentary spaces in the cultural eye. Most audiences will appreciate the universality of the story and its themes of motherhood, family, and love. Meanwhile, those who experienced stories anything similar to “Roma” (in all likelihood, people who spent any childhood time in non-Western democracies) will perceive something profound in a different, more personal way, just as Cuarón intended.

“Roma” will not need awards to endure in our movie memories beyond these transient months of self-recognition. Through his subtle, persistent juxtaposition, Cuarón restaged a stunning, gloriously alive Mexico. Those of us who grew up there will recognize it. Henceforth, we will remember it through his eyes as much as through our own memories. But “Roma” sure can use industry praise to parlay itself into the minds and hearts of broader audiences. The morning after the Globes announced their nominees, I received several text messages asking, “Have you heard of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’?” It is simply a fact of life that in our over-saturated world, awards recognition engenders curiosity and, in turn, acceptance.

The tug-of-war between needing and not persists as you weave from the story of “Roma” to the cultural reality it reflects. Take, for example, that one may be uncomfortable with the concept of domestic workers. Most people who have them would insist that unfair socioeconomic circumstances in Cleo’s country mean that this is her best chance. Similarly, though Doña Sofias would like to believe they can go it alone, they clearly cannot without the undemanding love of Cleos.

Mexico itself cannot endure without its complicated relationship to the United States —unwitting neighbor, a constant admirer. In the reverse, our country would be in trouble without a willing trading partner, capital recipient, and source of cheap labor. This isn’t about politics. It is simply that these relationships refuse reduction into simple Twitter messages or one-liners. They become multi-layered and then entangled, and it is in unknotting them through story-telling that we find joy. It is, at bottom, what Cuarón and “Roma” do so well — navigate such impossible bonds in such a carefree, understated matter.

So I, too, am torn. As an unapologetic champion of “Roma,” I instinctively reject and even fear the dreaded mark that a ‘Best Picture’ label could imprint. Many movies never live up to that grand pronouncement. Awards success takes down many movies into the forgotten bins of history. Examples from “Crash” to “The Artist” or even “Shakespeare In Love” abound. Fans have to parry a constant barrage of questions about those film’s worthiness of the title. “Roma,” I hope, never has to be so justified.

Sergi López as Vidal in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)

But the early recognition is also undeniably welcome and encouraging. Start with the fact that Mexico, despite four Best Director Oscars in the last five years, has never won the Best Foreign Language Film award. It is a somewhat arbitrary and even meaningless distinction in some ways. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for example, lost the Oscar to the German film “The Lives of Others,” but collected three statuettes in any case. But it would be an honor that would be nice to have, no? And few movies become lifelong classics without the approbation of at least the knowing parts of Western critics and/or audiences. Respect requires acknowledgment.

Let’s face it: impatient audiences (read: most audiences) are unlikely to find enough motivation to sit through this film. Worse, as we all know, even a healthy awards tally is no guarantee. It is no coincidence that Mexico’s new left-leaning President, known as “AMLO,” opened up the former Presidential Palace to the people. And he started with free screenings of “Roma” in the first week of his just-begun term.

How do we resolve this contradiction? We do not, for we cannot. It is the incongruity at the very core of the awards machine we all love and love to hate. It is the paradox inherent, like in “Roma,” in life itself—truly. We have one solace: the unaltered quiet joy that the movie has given us.

What do you think of “Roma”’s message? Does it speak to you in any way? And what of the “Roma” awards chances? Let us know in the comments!

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “ROMA” ranks among the contenders!

What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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