Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’: A Short Story Captured on Film
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma takes aspects of Italian Neo-Realism to approach his childhood memories and Liboria Rodriguez’s experience in 1970’s Mexico. The result is a short story film adaptation with no short story to accompany it — it is simply a short story captured on film.
There are three aspects I feel make Roma a short story: the use of 3rd objective, the personal as universal, and the epiphany. Although, these aren’t necessarily new to film I have never seen them work and come together as they do in Roma.
Perspective: 3rd Objective
A quick google search defines 3rd objective as, “a narrator who tells a story without describing any thoughts, opinions, or feelings.” Which begs the question, why would anyone choose this perspective if it doesn’t offer any interiority from a character? On Writing Short Stories suggests 3rd objective forces the audience to pay attention to a character’s dialogue and actions in order to understand them.
In many ways, the 3rd objective reflects the real world. For instance, if we’re in line ordering coffee and the person in front of us has a special order, is rude, or takes too long we will make a conclusion of that person based on the way they spoke and the choices they made. This is how the 3rd objective works. Through our observations, we can begin to understand them.
In Roma 3rd objective is used to characterize Cleo.
Cleo is a domestic worker which means she is in constant motion. Thus, the moments where she is not in motion are the most revealing: when she sits and when she stands.
The scenes where Cleo sits are emotionally heavy and deal primarily with the effects of her relationship with Fermín.
These moments where Cleo sits are when life happens. She sits in bed watching Fermín, she sits and tells Sofia she may be pregnant, she sits during the exam, she sits and tells Fermín she’s pregnant. She sits and processes the loss of her daughter.
With 3rd objective, the audience is asked to sit alongside Cleo and experience the emotions she feels. The awkwardness of a first fuck, the anxiety in having to tell someone something that might upset them, the hurt of a rechazo, and the pain of losing someone.
By fully immersing the audience in Cleo’s experience the audience can empathize with her.
Directly contrasting the sitting scenes are the ones where she stands, which showcase her strength.
The most significant is the training ground scene with Professor Zorek. Vulture has an interesting article that gives Professor Zorek cultural context. Whether or not the audience knows who he is what he represents not only parodies machismo and hypermasculinity but also suggests strength is both physical and mental.
Professor Zorek challenges everyone to shut their eyes, hold their hands over their head and lift a single leg. Of the crowd, Cleo is the only one capable of completing the challenge.
This scene suggests Cleo embodies both physical and mental strength. It challenges the notion that strength comes in the form of a man in tights flexing his muscles. Strength can also come in a smaller, quieter, more petite package.
Cleo’s strength is also portrayed in the hospital after confirming her pregnancy and when she goes crib shopping with abuela. These scenes in many away remind the audience that we are observing Cleo.
In the hospital an earthquake hits, and Cleo stands through it, meanwhile, an abuela and nieta fall to their knees and begin to pray. This moment alienates the audience. Chances are audience members, if in an earthquake, would have ducked, and covered their heads — as was the drill in school.
After crib shopping is interrupted by social and political outrage, Cleo stands strong and defiantly stares into Fermín’s eyes as he points a gun her. Meanwhile, abuela prays. Once again, the audience sensing the chaos of the scene may have reacted much differently than Cleo.
The 3rd objective has the power to both immerse and alienate the audience. But the alienation in the standing scenes succeeds in showcasing Cleo’s strength. Rather than turn to spirituality for strength, like many in the scene do, Cleo carries that strength within.
The use of 3rd objective is crucial in getting the audience to understand Cleo emotionally. In short stories, it can fail, given the lack of information being relayed, but I think its use in Roma is incredibly successful.
The Personal as Universal
Short stories have the power to be universally understood. Regardless of the readers own experience and background a story well-crafted and well-written will resonate across all languages — across all cultures.
Representing a person, a memory, and experience is the intention of Roma.
In describing Roma in an interview with the Guardian Cuarón says:
It’s a year in the life of a family and a country … For me, this film has always been difficult to describe. It was a process of following the character of Cleo and through her exploring wounds that were personal — family wounds. Then I realised [sic] these were wounds that I shared with many people in Mexico. And then I came to the conclusion that they are wounds shared by humanity.
The film touches on this universality in the scene where Cleo is on the roof doing the washing. The camera pans away and in the background, there are three other women washing and hanging clothes. Perhaps their stories differ from Cleo’s, but it is a nod to domestic workers in Mexico and around the globe that they exist, that they provide structure, balance, and stability to the families they are embraced by.
Cleo isn’t just a character born from Cuarón’s mind, but a real woman, Liboria Rodriguez.
Cuarón continued to capture reality by furnishing a home blocks from his childhood home, with the same furniture he grew up using. Once filming began, he chose to film scenes consecutively and subsequently hid the script to prevent the actors from ‘acting’.
The film is realistic because it sought out to be. The intention behind every decision helped craft a film that felt real to the audience.
Short stories love to portray the personal because they can touch on a human sentiment or experience. In writing, directing, and editing a personal story of this scale, Cuarón reached into the depths of Liberia’s experience and touched on something much bigger.
Short stories owe the epiphany to James Joyce. Although the definition remains somewhat obscure by him one of his characters states, “epiphanies are a sudden and momentary showing forth or disclosure of one’s authentic inner self. This disclosure might manifest itself in vulgarities of speech, or gestures, or memorable phases of the mind.”
The beach scene when Cleo says, “yo no la quería. Yo no quería que naciera,” / “I didn’t want her. I didn’t want her to be born.” is the epiphany and the most important lines of the film.
The film doesn’t explore political, social, or racial themes in-depth, in a way many reviewers wish it had. But Cleo — Liboria, isn’t just a vessel for those themes to be explored and exploited, for the sake of class/political/social/racial voyeurism.
Cleo’s place in society is not the framework for her character, they have shaped her and have impacted her life, yes, but her motivations and desires don’t stem directly from those institutions. Failing to make this connection sadly leads reviewers and critics alike suggesting that the film’s takeaway is Sofia’s drunken admission que, “estamos solas no importa lo que te digan siempre estamos solas,” / “we are alone. No matter what they say, we’re always alone.”
That is Sofia’s epiphany. Yes, they relate to Cleo and their shared experience of men abandoning them, but the lines give Sofia more character and interiority, not Cleo.
The scene with Professor Zorek needs to be revisited in order to understand Cleo’s epiphany.
Professor Zorek claims, “el único milagro radica en su propia voluntad y recuerden, el desarrollo mental es el motor para el desarrollo físico,” / “the only miracle resides within your own will. Remember the mind is the motor for the physical.” Again, Vulture gives really good context.
Cleo is the only one apart from Professor Zorek who has achieved this balance. Now, if “yo no la quieria,” is Cleo’s epiphany and an epiphany is a “disclosure of one’s authentic inner self.” Then Cleo from the moment she discovered her pregnancy never wanted the child.
There were signs, the most telling, she never embraced her pregnant stomach. Her arms, her hands, never loving stroked or embraced the child within. And she runs. She runs so fast to catch up to the boys. Never considering that perhaps, she shouldn’t.
The ocean scene signifies rebirth — a new beginning for Cleo and the family.
Given the perspective, where interiority is inaccessible coupled with a scene, where the children she treats so tender and lovingly are at risk of dying, those lines and that scene is the key to unlocking Cleo complexity as a character.
Cleo pulls the children out of the water, despite not knowing how to swim. She has saved them, in the most literal sense. But that’s what she has been doing, is in the background cleaning, cooking, and feeding ensuring the home remains intact as everything falls apart. She is the glue, and they huddle around her knowing, sharing their love to Cleo, the woman who saved them.
The epiphany changes our understanding of Cleo. Cleo is not a woman who lost a child, but a woman who lost a child she didn’t want. In short stories, the second read is more important than the first, because of the information revealed by the epiphany. For Roma it’s the rewatch.
The film ends on a hopeful note. Despite a traumatic year, the family and Cleo will be okay.
These three techniques when used successfully can create stories that transcend time. Look at Hills Like White Elephants and Bullet in the Brain, a short story with a film adaption. Both feature one or all these techniques.
Cuarón’s use of these techniques is a callback to the oldest form of storytelling and successfully translated the experience of reading a short story onto film.
Another unique quality of Roma is Cuarón having full creative control. Cuarón wrote, directed, and edited, so at no point was his message manipulated by someone else. Much like writers do, he had full control.
Cuarón’s proximity to the story changed the way he interacted with the making of this film. He was purposeful and intentional and created a film that transcended the medium, at least to me.
This was mainly an exercise for me begin to understand why I walked out the movie theater that night and thought, “this was a short story.” I realized halfway through I could’ve just called it a long-form short film, because short films essentially do what short stories do, right? I’m not sure. I was an English major :/
It’s also important to remember this film, although told in the 3rd objective, still carries some bias from Cuarón. It’s impossible to create something devoid of bias. Remezcla has an article covering this topic.
I should also mention the Oscar’s have passed and Roma won Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography.
Mucho amor y felicidades.