By Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo
One might say it all began in 2000 with the unprecedented blasts of frenzy and sexiness that were Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. When before had you felt so moved, aroused and shocked by Mexican candor, Oaxacan beaches, slow dancing to ranchera music and illegal dog fights?
True: those things have become commonplaces in the years since. But that may be precisely because they kicked off the new golden age of Mexican filmmaking we seem to be witnessing now. At the time of writing, four of the last five Oscars for best director have been awarded to Mexicans. Last year, a Mexican took home Venice’s Golden Lion. A few months before, another Mexican had transcended the limits of film with Cannes’ first virtual reality project. This year, Cuarón’s Roma (2018) garnered ten Oscar nominations. What is going on?
There are a number of unmysterious facts to quote. Just as the original “golden age” of Mexican cinema thrived on the country’s industrial growth spurt of the Forties, so is this new apogee partly a result of steady economic growth. The jump from film to digital has allowed not only for more allocation of resources to large projects but also for more independent productions. And to meet the demand, several new film schools have opened under the wing of various production companies.
But if you’ve experienced González Iñárritu’s Flesh and Sand (2017), or Cuarón’s Roma, you might suspect this momentum has little to do with numbers. In Flesh and Sand, the viewer puts on an Oculus Rift VR headset and gets dropped into a virtual Arizona desert among migrants dragging themselves under the sun. They are mostly women and children. Within minutes, a helicopter’s lights and deafening noise become shouts and guns. Patrol officers’ howls to “get down!” split the group between those who obey and those who run for their lives. Which group should you join? Should you join? Should you just stand there? The sensory turmoil throws your body into a state of emergency. An officer detects your eye level and points his gun at you. You drop to the ground. Down there, you feel, as reviewers have variously put it, “lowered, lessened … subhuman, without even a criminal’s civilian rights,” or more bluntly, reduced to a “piece of cattle.”
Roma’s aesthetic runs in the opposite direction. The film puts you through the ordinary tragedies of an ordinary middle-class family in the company of their maid, Cleo. You experience her devotion to the children she serves, the abandonment of her own child’s father, the unsurpassable wall that divides her world—the indigenous world—from middle-class Mexicans, and even her confrontation with the forces of nature (an earthquake, the raging ocean) as they press themselves against the weak (newborns trapped in a crumbling hospital, imprudent children who stray from the shore). Story is subordinated to feeling: there isn’t so much a plot to the film as there are memories re-rendered from Cuarón’s childhood. Things happen, but they don’t amount to a standard narrative arc. Instead, Roma turns on the way Cleo takes in the phenomena around her through no filter but her lovely almond-shaped eyes. Perpetually on the margins—of her country’s politics, of the household where she lives—Cleo’s grounded perspective allows her—and you with her—to experience everything without judgment, with an open heart. Such vulnerability is dangerous: one minute you’re seeing Cleo scrub floors, and the next, parts of your soul ache that you didn’t know existed.
Not all critics have praised the films for this emotional approach to storytelling. Reviewing Roma for the New Yorker, Richard Brody complained of Cuarón’s failure to give us any historical specifics in the film, favoring mood over context. When Cleo hides from a shoot-out, for example, we don’t learn she’s in the midst of the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971. Nor do we learn where Cleo comes from and what pushed her to seek work in the city, or what her and the family’s ideological sympathies might be: “In the film, politics are strictly personal, de-ideologized, dehistoricized.” Other critics have put a finer point on it: “It’s a movie made to appease the ruling class,” Scout Tafoya writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Along similar lines, Film Comment’s Jordan Cronk says of Flesh and Sand that it “turns the suffering of border crossings into a consumable VR experience.” The films do keep their scope small. But are they really solipsistic or merely sentimental?
It is easy to be misled by the appearance of social realism of these films. It is easy, in particular, to link them to original “golden age” work like Ismael Rodríguez’s We the Poor (1948), a story about a gang of outcasts life won’t throw a bone. Yet, in contrast with their golden-age predecessors, the newer Mexican filmmakers do not romanticize poverty, endorse macho domination urges or reduce their female characters to mere saintly mother figures or loyal fiancées. Through the years, Mexican cinema has dropped many of these tired tropes. The result was the “New Latin American Cinema” of the late twentieth century, such as Arturo Ripstein’s dark fable The Castle of Purity (1973), Paul Leduc’s Frida Kahlo biopic Frida Still Life (1983) or Cuarón’s own Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991). Ideologically and stylistically, “New Latin American” films were as far from We the Poor as, say, Fight Club was from Casablanca.
Still, before 2000, most Mexican cinema had doctrinal aspirations. Faithful to the educational powers of storytelling, socialist realist films were meant to tell you about the life of the working class, and New Latin American films were originally meant to convey certain leftist values. The key difference with the new crop of Mexican filmmakers is that they do not have any such end in mind. What they aim for instead is to show how the world feels and looks through someone else’s eyes.
In Flesh and Sand, you do not simply watch the horror of a human trampling over a fellow human’s dignity but feel trampled over yourself. Who these immigrants are and why they’re there and what will happen to them next is information you’re too busy suffering like “a piece of cattle” to think about. In Roma, which does not rely on the sensory magic of VR, you do not just witness a woman sharing her life with a family that will never see her as an equal but actually sense her love penetrating your skin in the same way you are able to sense your own mother’s. Similarly, to give a couple of lesser-known examples, with the old artist’s angst in Carlos Reygadas’s Japan (2002) or with the middle-class brats’ ennui in Santiago Mohar Volkow’s The Dead (2014). The question of why this man is driven to suicide—the story behind that—and the issue of people’s unawareness of their own privilege are of no interest to Reygadas and Mohar Volkow. When you’re gripped by that angst and ennui, you’ll see they are of no interest to you either.
After so long in Hollywood, one might wonder why González Iñárritu and Cuarón have retrained their focus on Mexico. Given the political context of their films, it isn’t hard to speculate. Where Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También are stories about middle-class Mexicans, Flesh and Sand and Roma revolve around poor and marginalized individuals, exactly those under threat with the current U.S. administration, and whom the new Mexican president has vowed to protect.
Cuarón, like me, is a Mexican living in England. If Y Tu Mamá También is primarily about what it is like to come of age in Mexico, then Roma is Cuarón’s way of returning home. For me, seeing Roma was to be a teenager again, drunk to death for the first time, getting woken up to hot coffee by Marina in bed. I could feel her disappointment in the way she woke me (angrier even than my own parents), she who has known me since I was six or seven and who still today cries a little bit every time I go abroad again. Distressingly, it was also to catch a glimpse of what it all might have been like from the other side.
I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge. Of course, these films don’t have to tell me. They do enough by showing aspects of reality occluded by my limited perspective. I, like many Mexicans, was quietly aware of the problematic dynamics at play in the relationships we have with women like Cleo—aware, that is, of what Alma Guillermoprieto called in her illuminating Roma review “the twisting nature of love.” How could we not be aware? We’re part of it: part of the “hierarchical, exploitative, unequal, unstable, and nevertheless unstintingly loyal and, yes, loving, Mexican family.” But I was aware of this only—comfortably—from my side. Until Cuarón showed me the other end of this twisted bond, I hadn’t confronted it.
In Roma, it is wrenching to see Cleo in pain—Cleo, the kind of person who stops during a stroll to savor the smell and sounds of the country (“This reminds me of my hometown. It smells like this; it sounds like this”), the kind to wipe the phone a little bit with her dress before handing it to the call’s recipient, the kind to save you from drowning without herself being able to swim. It is through these gestures that her sensitive, vulnerable nature reveals itself to you; and in which, if you’re a middle-class Mexican, you might recognize someone you love. When tragedy hits Cleo, then, your heart breaks because tragedy hits you with her.
The scene at the beach is a case in point. By now we’ve learned who Cleo is through exposure to her day-to-day life and the way she responds to it. We know that she feared losing her job—and the children she loves—when a garbage collector-turned-paramilitary assassin got her pregnant; we know she can take matters into her own hands and track him down, then move on when it’s clear she’s better off without him; we know she forgives her employer for mistreating her (we learn this when she helps her out of the car as she comes home drunk). We know she is light-hearted and strong and capable of miraculous courage: we’ve just learned this on the beach, a moment ago.
Roma opens with the quiet sloshing of water on tile, as Cleo cleans the courtyard of dog shit that accumulates faster than she can wash it away. Now, at the film’s climax, as she walks, then runs, into the riptide to pull the children back to shore, the sound of the waves is disproportionately anguishing, as is our helpless position at the camera’s distance. One more second would be intolerable: Cleo saves us from drowning too. And then, for once, she breaks down. She tells us what we already know: “Yo no la quería”—I did not want her.
She’s talking about her stillborn baby. But she’s also telling us: I cannot take this anymore. She’s talking about the racism (toward her and her people), the misogyny, the backbreaking work, the bad pay, the separation from her own family in some remote town in Oaxaca, and the constant heartbreak. But we already knew this too. So did Cleo’s second family. Why hadn’t they embraced her like that, then, until now? Why haven’t we embraced our Cleos—that is, treated them justly—if we claim to love them and if we were aware of this all along? Now that, not history or narrative, is Roma’s point: to silently shove this moral mess in our faces. It’s up to us now to figure out how to reckon with it.
Mexican cinema is no longer preaching to us from a pulpit. Instead, it meets us where we are; it takes our hand and helps us see things from a novel point of view. When art does this, it can make us question our moral certainties and bring forth possibilities we might otherwise have overlooked. Why hadn’t the possibility of relating in a different way to the people one considers “part of the family” been raised before? Why had it been so difficult to imagine that an indigenous woman could win an Oscar?
Damn these Mexicans, whose refusal to tell me a story that will leave me contented forces me to question my relationship with Marina, my position relative to the crisis at the border (why do I have the right to cross it?) and whether I should, like those filmmakers, return home again. These are questions that pertain to me personally, but not me alone. It is hard to overstate the importance of the self-examination these films have prompted in Mexico. People are talking about domestic workers’ rights and about white privilege in the Mexican film industry; they’re even wondering whether it was permissible for Cuarón to exploit—to “continue to exploit”—his nanny in his films. They’re talking about Mexico’s treatment of Central American immigrants.
The leap from awareness to conversation to actual change will take work (although, surprisingly, steps are already being taken), as it always does. But casting a spotlight on those we’ve left in the dark is not a bad way to start. Perhaps what these films help us see most clearly is that if we do love our Cleos, taking responsibility for what we owe them is something we also owe ourselves.
Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford with a background in filmmaking.