Bill Senyard here with another Gospel Rant. This time we are looking at the very hot foreign film Roma. It has been nominated for a bunch of Oscars including best foreign film, best director, best actress and best film. It is the artistic darling of this year’s class and so has some buzz. Fortunately, at the Rant, we are not evaluating the movie based upon its artistic prowess—or even its chances on award night. We are looking at Roma from the point of view of shame. Is shame a major factor in the film? Does it affect relationships? Character development? Conflict? What can we learn about our own shame as we look at the shame and shame behavior of others? In the end we will use our proprietary Shame Meter to give Roma a number grade between 0 and 10.
Per Robert Ebert.com, Roma’s director Alphonso Cuaron has made “his most personal film to date, and the blend of the humane and the artistic within nearly every scene is breathtaking. It’s a masterful achievement in filmmaking as an empathy machine, a way for us to spend time in a place, in an era, and with characters we never would otherwise… “Roma” spends roughly a year in the life of the [family servant/maid] Cleo as she plans for motherhood, tries to support a family that is coming apart, and simply moves through a loud, changing world.”
ROMA follows Cleo (Best Actress Nominee Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker for a chaotic strife-riddled family in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City. Cuaron has chosen to film Roma in black and white. An artistic choice that casts a pall on all of the characters and story.
When we think of shame, too often we think of some dramatic event or failure or exposure that makes us feel immediately ashamed. This shame is an event that causes our amygdala to ignite cortisol to our brain which shuts down our pre-frontal cortex and slams us into a fear cycle, you know, fight, flight, or freeze. A negative emotional rush that leaves observable scars in our identity and relationships. Fair enough. But shame has a second strategy that likely causes even more damage to even more people, particularly the Cleo’s of the world.
We see strategy #2 in Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Roma. What Cuaron brilliantly does is to cinematically explore an entire culture’s larger shame tension between the haves and have-nots from the perspective of two vulnerable women who can’t do anything about it. They are culturally ill-equipped to effect any social change. The story is set in the early 70’s in a middle-class suburb (Roma) of Mexico City. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), is a mother of four whose husband is about to leave her. Then there is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous (i.e., lower class) woman (her value is measured by how well she cleans up the dog crap from the driveway of the family she serves as a live-in maid). What they have in common is that they are both in positions of some helplessness. You can feel the insecurity, the lack of relational stability and of course, their impotence to do anything about it.
Cleo gets pregnant—big time shame and fear for her. She is abandoned by the father (and can do nothing about it) and fears being fired by Sofía (and can’t do anything about it). Sofía’s security is no better. She is desperately committed to keeping her family together as her husband abandons her and the family, forcing her to lie to cover-up his dalliances (and can do nothing about it). Shame says, you are not able to do what is expected. You cannot fix the problem. You are unable to change your situation. You are helpless.
Shame’s strategy in Roma? It is less an immediate frontal attack. This shame prefers a slow disintegration of identity (what race, sex role, tribe or people group are you from?), relationships (marriage is no longer secure or lasting, the husband says if it lasts or not), and even societal. Click To Tweet Cuaron frames the two women’s struggle in the frame of a historical student-led anti-government revolt that reportedly ended with over 100 students brutally and shamefully murdered by government soldiers. Like the women, the students had no power or weapons and were ill-equipped to change matters. They were not capable of changing their lot. That’s clear shame-driven societal disintegration.
But let’s dive even deeper into shame’s playbook. While the nation was in chaos and vulnerable students were being cruelly slaughtered, the Mexican middle-class is portrayed as being insulated from the mess in Roma, and thus willingly oblivious and indifferent to the struggles of others, to the havoc on the streets. Shame co-conspires with denial to keep good people from helping other vulnerable people. Instead of stepping up for the weak, they prefer to go on vacation to the beach.
We also get a peak into the shame strategy of the Mexican upper-class. It looks like the Middle-class not-my-problem strategy on steroids. They leave the burning city for the burning country (a shameless metaphor of course, like Nero fiddling while Roma burned? Sorry, my bad!) to also hide (don’t see don’t tell) from the real-world human tragedies going on all around them. Honestly, the very strange upper-class family gathering looks more like Stephen King than Cuaron.
So we have a portrait of an entire society in the throes of human and relational disintegration. Shame avoids problems, particularly the problems of others. Shame hides. Shame lies about our precarious situation as well as the plight of others. Shame applauds indifference. Click To Tweet Shame self-medicates to avoid the pain of self-awareness and integration. No judgment. Me too.
I will say this. Cleo seems to be the only human island amidst the domestic strife and political and societal inhuman turmoil and disintegration. In the midst of her helplessness, she remains loyal, caring and compassionate, certainly the most likeable and authentic of all the largely shallow characters that surround her. She is beloved by the children she serves and perhaps is the closest thing to a mother they have.
Shame Meter? I give Roma a 6.5 out of 10. I would give it more, except for two reasons. First, there is some evidence of redemption and hope after the family’s near tragic trip to the beach. Second, Cuaron is treating Cleo as a true heroine of the story thus giving her more props than she will ever get from her regular place on the societal food chain. That’s hopeful. Shame can be defeated, or at least set back even by a vulnerable woman from the lower class. In the end, Cleo evolves from indigenous servant to almost family. That’s a start.
Will Roma win the Oscar for best picture? In a year without an obvious front runner, it might be the upset darling. I do not think so. I think that there are slightly better candidates. Yet it is highly likely that Cuaron will take home best director honors. Maybe cinematography. Best foreign film? A lock. Who knows? That’s why we watch the Oscars.