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An introduction to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

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Film writer and cultural commentator César Albarrán-Torres explores Roma's sociopolitical climate, Mexico City as a megalopolis and the long-lasting echoes of colonialism.

ROMA is one of my favourite films, not only of this year but maybe of the past 20 years or so. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has said that it’s one of his five favourite films of all time and he told Cuarón, who is a close collaborator of his, that it was only the fifth favourite.

This film is about memory. We’ve all thought and read about how cinema is this medium that preserves feelings, aesthetics, historical moments in a sort of amber, for us to see and upcoming generations to see. What makes this film special is that Alfonso Cuarón not only took a deep dive into his own personal memory as a chilango– a white, middle-class Mexican from Mexico City, which is quite important, because racial politics are extremely important in this film. Cuarón delves not only into his own personal memory as a very privileged Mexican but also into cinematic memory. There are winks to Italian neo-realism. There’s a very fond and amazing wink to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto o mezzo). There’s a fantastic scene which deals with politics and state repression that is obviously an echo of The Battle of Algiers, a movie that Cuarón himself referenced in his other great work Children of Men.

ROMA has to do with Cuarón’s own personal memory and it has to do with cinematic memory. We can think of Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) which analyses how Mexico City was becoming a hub, not only for this idea of “progress”, but also a hub for misery. People came from the countryside because the promises of the Mexican Revolution were not fulfilled for Indigenous and rural populations. They all went to the city and these cinturones de miseria (belts of misery) were created around Mexico City. So, this movie is about that as well. And about the historical memory of early 1970s Mexico.

I was born in 1978, seven years after the events of this film took place. But my own personal identity as a Mexican was shaped by what happened in the late 60s and early 70s. Why? Because my father was part of the student movement in 1968, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of students and people from civil society including union members, housewives, kids, and elders were killed in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco in downtown Mexico City. My father tells me how he was right there. He studied at UNAM, the National University of Mexico, which is famous for political activity. Remember, in the 1960s, the Cold War was happening. Mexico, in theory, was governed by a Socialist party - the PRI – and you’ll see a lot of signs for the PRI in ROMA. PRI stands for Institutional Revolutionary Party, which is an oxymoron in itself – how can you be institutional and revolutionary at the same time? So, Mexico was governed by the PRI and my father tells me how he was there [Tlatelolco], and the soldiers came suddenly, and he ran 15 – 20km after seeing how his friends were being killed. It’s a miracle that I’m standing here before you.

The period that ROMA portrays is a moment that I would describe as a tense calm. Three years after the 1968 student massacre and after the Olympic Games (which happened just a few weeks after the massacre), Mexico seemed to be in a historical juncture in which progress was possible. The ‘68 events had happened, and the government had swept it under the rug. There was a new President, who was one of the politicians who was responsible for the massacre. The presidency went from Gustavo Díaz Ordaz to Luis Echeverría, who was infamous for state repression. In the middle of the Cold War, there was a single-party system in Mexico that Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, called the “perfect dictatorship”. It was covered with a democratic paint but at its core it was a repressive state, not only in the city with student movements but also in rural areas.

In ROMA, we see two parallel historical and political processes going on. On one hand, we see how people in the countryside (and there’s a little reference to this in the film) were being thrown off their lands. They could be occupied by corporations, by the state-run big oil company Pemex, and by what we call in Mexico ‘caciques’, which are a sort of omnipresent figure in small towns, many of whom were revolutionaries in the early 20th century and then became repressors themselves.

Cleo, the protagonist of ROMA, hails from the state of Oaxaca. (If you ever go to Mexico, you must go to Oaxaca, it’s amazing). But this is in the southern part of Mexico, near the Pacific Coast, which is famous for histories of indigenous struggle and of moments that tried to counterbalance colonial powers, led by Indigenous identity. For example, as a beautiful touch in the film, some of the dialogue is spoken in mixteco, Mixtec or Zapotec, which are the indigenous languages from Oaxaca.

In the 1960s and 70s, in the neighbouring state of Guerrero, there were guerrilla movements led by Lucio Cabañas, who was a rural teacher who just got fed up with what the government was doing. So we have people migrating from Guerrero and from Oaxaca because there is no work and the land has been forgotten by the authorities. And now, 40 years later, in the current political climate, those are the regions where a lot of marijuana and other narcotics are being produced. Why? Because that’s the only way in which people can make a living off the land. So on the one hand, we have that process of indigenous populations being repressed. Mexico had its War of Independence in the 19th century, but it was led by people of Spanish heritage who just got fed up with taxes. They said “We don’t want to pay the Spanish Crown any more money, we are sick of this – we're going to have an independent country.” But the indigenous populations never really had true independence. And this is what you’ll see in ROMA. Roma, by the way, is a neighbourhood in Mexico City, and also a very nice reference to Italian neo-realism, if we want to dig a bit deeper into the title.

Race is one of the themes that runs throughout ROMA. Some fellow Mexicans call me crazy when I say that Mexico is a deeply racist country. The recent outcry over the migrant caravan reveals these deep divisions over race. Maybe it’s not a racist country – but it’s a country that’s highly defined by race. In colonial times, Mexico was ruled by the caste system. If you Google “caste system New Spain” you’ll see how pure Europeans were up the top and then mixed-race people and Indigenous people were kept down the bottom. And I would argue that Mexican society keeps operating under similar conditions. This is one of the historical threads that you will see in ROMA. The other is that history of state repression.

In 1968, as mentioned above, there was a student massacre as the government didn’t want any ‘commies’ infiltrating the political system, so they killed a whole bunch of students. It was the same year as the 1968 Spring movement in Paris – these were times of deep change. In 1971 a new president was elected, Luis Echeverría, who tried to bring back a sense of stability in Mexico. Throughout ROMA you’ll see a lot of campaign materials for him and an infamous personality in Mexican politics, Carlos Hank Gonzalez. He was also a school teacher who then became the governor of the State of Mexico, which is the richest state in the country. He formed a political group that led Mexican politics for a long time, and the current outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto was also from this group. We can see how Cuarón bridges the past and present in ROMA.

This is not a spoiler (it’s in the trailer) but you will see some violence in the film. This event was called the Corpus Christi Massacre, and it happened in June 1971. Many of the student leaders in the 1968 movement migrated to Chile, where Salvador Allende was leader and before Augusto Pinochet rose to power in 1973. Echeverría, the new Mexican president, stated that the students needed to return, however at the same time the State was cutting funding from universities. Students in Mexico City were supporting the University of Nuevo Leon, in the north, in its fight for autonomy. Being a Vice-Chancellor in Mexico is a political position rather than an academic one, so university politics are very important for the country as a whole. Students from the UNAM and the Politécnico Nacional, the other big public tertiary institution, got together and started protesting again. What did the State do? They couldn’t do what they did in 1968, which was to deploy the army to the streets and shoot people. So they created paramilitary groups with the help of the U.S. (which was at the peak of interventionism in Latin America at the time).

These groups were largely disenfranchised youth from the belts of misery outside Mexico City. It happens in Neza, Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, which are the slums outside Mexico City with their own particular culture. Believe it or not, when Neza was founded it was seen as an ideal place where people could achieve progress. So the government didn’t use the army in the streets, but they recruited, indoctrinated and released this group called Los Halcones, or ‘hawks’, and this event is called El Halconazo. Members of Los Halcones disguised themselves as civilians, so that the government could later blame the massacre on extremists within the students.

These two historical narratives converge in ROMA in a very cinematically beautiful way. ROMA is many things – it's a personal family story and it’s a movie about deep human connection. It’s a movie about the unacknowledged role of domestic workers in Mexico and by extension, in other countries like the Philippines. But historically, it’s a movie about this period of tense calm, where everything was going wrong, but everything was covered up by the government.

I’ll leave it there but enjoy this movie. You’re really lucky to be seeing this on the big screen. I think it’s a film that deserves to be admired and watched as it's supposed to be seen – on the big screen. It merits many revisits. Thank you.

César Albarrán-Torres is the editor of the film journal Senses of Cinema. He is also lecturer in Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne), where he teaches Popular Culture of Asia and Global Screen Studies. He has been widely published in academic and non-academic titles as a film and literary critic, author and translator. He is the former editor of Cine PREMIERE magazine (Mexico) and the founding editor of www.cinepremiere.com.mx, the most widely read film website in the Spanish-speaking world.