In Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, two of the main characters are briefly caught in the middle of Mexico City during a massacre. The event is not named, the perpetrators barely identified except for one specific, named (fictional) character, who we have seen in a few earlier scenes. It is brief and violent and done in Cuaron’s signature immersive, involved style. It quickly flows into the next set piece Cuaron has dreamed up— a vivid, harrowing depiction of a mother struggling to give birth in difficult circumstances. Without following some background action, incidental ambient dialogue from an off-screen speaker, or a number of historical clues that can only be interpreted by those in the know or those who google it after (hello), the viewer might have little idea of what the massacred protestors were marching for, who they were, or where their assailants came from. This does not seem to matter— to most critics, or to Cuaron, who stages the event as part of a tapestry of semi-autobiographical memories structured around depicting the ongoing employment of a maid in his childhood home.
What we are meant to experience is the more immediate sense of danger and violence in the event, abstracted via faces we do not recognise from any previous involvement in the film. The event gives way to a more intimate, bloodless combat of locked eyes between our protagonist Cleo and the father of her child. The messy, politically charged event is a backdrop for a personal story; none of the main characters discuss the event in its aftermath, express political opinions beforehand, or even vent their feelings during— their feelings are exclusively personal, to do with their immediate needs and their immediate anguish, as you’d expect from anyone during such a distressing and panic-inducing event.
Of course, to say that people in a crisis aren’t enlightening for the audience doesn’t absolve the filmmaker of responsibility for asking tough questions. The film is as sensation-focused as Cuaron’s 3D space movie Gravity, as uninterested in putting the details and complications with which the scene is so carefully set-designed into any sort of foregrounded context. Space travel is about birth and death (and love), Mexico City in the ‘70s is about birth and death (and love). This includes the part where a US-backed illegal strike force armed with both blunt weapons and firearms descends on a peaceful student-organised protest on June 10, 1971, killing a disputed number of people (but probably more than 100). That is only about birth and death, too.
Death, actually, is about death, and people who die are too dead to raise any questions as to why, but while they’re dying, they make a good recreation of Michelangelo’s La Pietà (a trick Cuaron has plundered from his own oeuvre, from Children of Men). Living people might blame themselves for one death or a few, especially if they are completely innocent, and this is a good opportunity for a receptive audience to humanistically pity or weep or feel towards them, and not towards the dead. There is no definition for this feeling we feel watching Cuaron induce feelings in us, except that it is, absolutely and at the expense of any other considerations, a feeling. Cuaron’s film about his childhood is childish, ultimately, and it turns even his adult characters into children, with no awareness of or engagement with the adult world going on around them. Cleo, though she is meant to be Cuaron’s loving tribute to a key figure from his boyhood, is especially infantilised, not unlike one of the household’s pet birds in cages, even if, as Yalitza Aparicio depicts her, she ought to be much too big and too interesting for any director to keep her so locked up and cut off from the world around her.
I have just seen another film here in London about a historical massacre. It is two and a half hours long, and the event commemorated by the film’s title, Peterloo, happens only in the last half hour or so. It is a long film about people in rooms, talking. They talk about their lives, about politics, about how they relate to their country and the people around them. They talk about reform and rebellion and every political re- in between. They express their intentions, hopes, and dreams, outline their motivations, make plans and plots, excuses and arguments, observations and insults. Some of the rooms are in London, or Manchester, or the countryside; some are larger, better adorned, some dingier, some lit by more candles or streaming with sunlight. Every frame looks like a painting, which is not to say every frame is beautiful, but that every frame is carefully composed to establish and illuminate relationships between characters, their space and time. Mike Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope have made an even greater advancement in cinematography than Mr. Turner managed, not just imitating some beloved old paintings but reviving the living, breathing tensions and moral and intellectual force that the best of them teem with.
All this is very careful, delicate work by a master, but with the surprising energy and unpredictability that can only come from a Mike Leigh approach to scenes and rehearsals. It’s too absorbing, too diligent as a work of historical recreation, too gently, confidently directed to feel authored in that heavy way that most filmmaking by ambitious so-called visionaries feels authored. It is often hard work, to parse the scenes fully, to grasp their implications, to view the small details being carefully accumulated as worth an investment of time and thought. I hope that viewers will consider how much hard work and hard research went into making the film, and agree that it deserves their effort and concentration.
Many people will not call it ‘the film we need right now’, because for something to feel strikingly necessary it usually has to be rousing, motivating, producing a deep well of sustained feeling through its runtime, not ending with Peterloo’s brutal but pointed lack of consolation or reflection. Peterloo expresses a deep skepticism for empty rhetoric and useless uplift, but it has a good detective’s healthy skepticism for most of what its character say, without cynicism or equivocation. Roma is the ‘film we need right now’ for those who believe that people need to leave the cinema impressed with their own ability to feel. Roma is for you, if you think that the world’s biggest problem is a lack of empathy, not a lack of directed hard work driven by empathy (or by anything else that will do in a pinch) and aimed at achieving both practical and sublime results.
Roma is a film about a massacre, because once a filmmaker exploits a massacre for attention and for narrative payoff, there’s no going back; that’s the film now, that’s the measure of your care for the people you have depicted. The deaths depicted are deaths for death’s sake, sacrifices on the altar of death. Peterloo is a film about a massacre, because Mike Leigh wanted to show us something that he found really important, an under-taught historical massacre by British forces of a peaceful assembly of workers in Manchester. He wanted to bring the voices of all those involved to the foreground, to spend far more time on doing this than on the most devastatingly savage and alarming sequence he has ever filmed. The deaths depicted are deaths for the sake of the lives lived, for the sake of enshrining what their lives and deaths were about, so many things that are so much more important than the mere fact of life and death (and even love). Because that’s the kind of hard work the filmmakers we need right now need to keep doing, if dealing with the past is going to be part of their project.