Roma ½

"Foucault wanted to write a history of madness itself, that is madness speaking on the basis of of its own experience and under its own authority, and not a history of madness described from within the language of reason, the language of psychiatry on madness [...]

"It is a question, therefore, of escaping the trap or objectivist naiveté that would consist in writing a history of untamed madness, of madness as it carries itself and breathes before being caught and paralyzed in the nets of classical reason, from within the very language of classical reason itself, using the concepts that were the historical instruments of the capture of madness - the restrained and restraining language of reason. [...]

"What is the historical responsibility of this logic of archaeology? Where should it be situated? Does it suffice to stack the tools of psychiatry neatly, inside a tightly shut workshop, in order to return to innocence and to end all complicity with the rational or political order which keeps madness captive? […] Nothing within this language, and no one among those who speak it, can escape historical guilt - if there is one, and if it is historical in a classical sense - which Foucault apparently wishes to put on trial. But such a trial may be impossible, for by the simple fact of their articulation the proceedings and verdict unceasingly reiterate the crime. If the Order of which we are speaking is so powerful, if its power is unique of its kind, this is so precisely by virtue of the universal, structural universal, and infinite complicity in which it comprises all those who understand it in its own language, even when this language provides them with the form of their own denunciation. Order is then denounced within order. [...]

"The misfortune of the mad, the interminable misfortune of their silence, is that their best spokesmen are those who betray them best; which is to say that when one attempts to convey their silence itself, one has already passed over to the side of the enemy, the side of order, even if one fights against order from within it, putting its origin into question"

- Jacques Derrida, "Cogito and the History of Madness"

"You're supposed to be dead."


"Because this is my game."

- Roma


Personally, I'm not so much invested in the arguments that go along the lines of "this is not your story to tell," since that line of reasoning leads pretty quickly to a theoretical dead end (who, within X identity category, has the purchase on "the true experience," or is it entirely relativist?). To my mind, the issue is far more categorical, a question of what should and should not be done in regard to the suffering body and even more specifically its marginalization. Roma falls so far down into the second category of “what should not be done,” which in a way shouldn't be a total surprise though the lengths to which Cuarón goes in the film certainly is.

It isn't worth dwelling too long on the solipsism of the film, for those criticisms write themselves, but more to do with how Cuarón weaponizes them and to what end. So, he feels guilt for not giving much of a shit about his working class caretaker growing up - fair enough, certainly understandable. So, he decides he wants to make a tribute film for her - that's very nice. But, who is this film really for? There has been no shortage of press covering how "painstakingly" detailed his recreation of his childhood is, right down to a full scale recreation of his childhood home "as he remembered it." We also know that, like the triple threat he clearly is, he decided to write, direct, and shoot the film himself to make sure his vision was total (I do love an auteur). He even goes as far as to include an homage to Gravity, in one of the film's most stunningly masturbatory gestures. But, as we also see, Cuarón is physically absent for a good majority of the film - much of its runtime is dedicated to moments he did not witness, but heard secondhand from his nanny in more recent conversation. Which again, brings us to the question: whose film is this, hers or his? The answer: hers filtered through his, which is to say it redoubles the initial class violence by once again exploiting her for personal gain.

And it is exploitation. Roma is another reminder that filmmakers are often the ones who appear to think the least about what it means to make a movie. Twitter has been ablaze this week roasting film theory and academia, and while I don't especially want to leap to the defense of the academy, I'll always die on the theory hill - at any rate, everyone who even thinks about picking up a camera should read, at the very least, Rivette's On Abjection and probably some Adorno too, because it all emphasizes the fact that just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should. And how fucking dare you, Cuarón, dramatize the death of a baby not once, but twice, and her baby especially? How can you dramatize the near death of two of your siblings? Plenty who object to the Von Trier out of principle will readily hold this film up, but this is the whole point of the Von Trier, that this type of filmmaking is already a transgression that leads us to the bottomless pit of moral relativity and violence. But even ignoring the Von Trier, whatever, take a less controversial object: Radu Jude's I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians opens with a brief instruction from one character to another, "Don't mock this." This carries the weight not only of that whole film, but of the very practice of filmmaking, by the very fact that once you dramatize this kind of tragedy, this violence, you are already trivializing it and mocking it, treating it as an aesthetic experience through which we are lead as if on tour. It's not that you can't have a film that features a stillborn, a child's death, etc. It's just that it's an unbelievably repulsive move to use her stillbirth to create climactic gusto, for a grim dramatic pop - completely thoughtless and cruel.

BUT EVEN beyond that, what is perhaps the greatest element to his crime is the way Cuarón completely avoids the question of class all together by hiding it through some faux-feminist message. Men are total pieces of shit, no question, but it is utterly appalling that Cuarón would pretend as though the solidarity his nanny and his mother share as women could ever transcend the limitations of class antagonisms. What's more, he even goes as far as to prop up his mother and grandmother as the whole two who ever really cared for her, taking to the hospital when she discovers she's pregnant etc., while turning the men who share her class background into the principle antagonists. Again, men are shit, and her man is no exception to this. But simply because they share in the experience of horrible partners does not and cannot hide the basic exploitative violence of the class division. You can have the children shout "we love you! we love you!" all you want, it means less than nothing. (Probably the most upsetting line in this regard is after Cuarón's mother announces the split with her husband, she goes "We all must stay close, really close - right Cleo [the nanny]?") It's all performative liberal empathy, another on the list of art films made for a middle-to-upper class audience to mull over and exorcise whatever guilt they may feel for their class standing by showing an interest in the suffering poor, emphasizing how we can create solidarity in all ways so long as we leave class divisions untouched (note, if you will, how the Corpus Christi massacre becomes a dramatic moment, not because it was a CIA-backed suppression of left activity and organizing but because her baby's father was one of the Halcones, though presented as some vague, undefined violent protestor).

Whatever, man.

Edit: As this comment has come up again and again, I felt I needed to reword one point to better convey a crucial argument: yes, we all know this is ““““about””””” class, in that it shows a class dynamic, but what does it have to say? “Wow, there is a divide between the classes” - duh. “Even though she did all that, she still isn’t their equal” - duh, and runs the risk of being totally reactionary in that no efforts are made to flesh out the specificity of the situation and thus, through the constant transcendental portrayal of her personhood (I was recently reminded of the completely stupid scene where she is the only one who can stand on one leg - utterly insane), turns it into a universal fixture, as though there will always necessarily be a class divide, as though there is no recourse to wealth redistribution and broader egalitarian efforts, as though she is permanently going to suffer the tribulations of working class life. Neither of those remarks are of any substance, they’re both totally superficial. That it notices that a class difference exists doesn’t mean that it has anything to say about class; I’m not about to start giving out participation trophies to upper middle class people who are just now recognizing “wow…maybe life is different for the working class.” And even with that acknowledgement (again, trite and narcissistic), his dramatic and formal technique (which, again, is more my point anyway) makes no attempt to see her as an equal, or even as a human being. Cuarón still fails to recognize what it means for him, a person of total privilege, to attempt to consider, reflect on, and portray his relationship to the working class and class struggle. This is just another in a series of privileged, prestige art films that mobilize these antagonisms for artistic clout, to endow their film with a superficial, commercial “importance,” without being required to think their means. I really can’t be bothered to be moved by the “bigness” of Cuarón’s vain gesture.