London Film Festival 2018: Roma to Peterloo

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.

ROMA will be released by NETFLIX 

PETERLOO is playing in cinemas nationwide from November 2nd

3 thoughts on “London Film Festival 2018: Roma to Peterloo”

  1. Marisa says:

    George, your reading about the use of the Corpus Christi massacre as ‘backdrop’ only shows that you have no idea whatsoever about Mexican history. The film is charged with political commentary and furious criticism: on the clothes on some people, on the walls of the city and the suburbs (the hill as ‘background’ during the training scene!!!), on the ‘background’ dialogue (which I’ll give to you, as it is not translated), and even at some points on the dialogue between Cleo and her friend. To be honest, unless you are a Mexican or a Mexicanist I doubt you’d be able to understand how politically charged and critic the film is. Alas, I didn’t cry in the ‘heart-breaking’ moments most critics have mentioned, I cried of rage and frustration every time Cuaron dropped one those political moments. Politics in this film is not ‘background’, it is bloody everywhere and it explains absolutely everything that happens to Cleo.

    1. George Hardy says:

      Hi Marisa, thanks for commenting! I admit that I am no expert in Mexican history. In fact, it was after seeing the film that I followed the clues Cuaron had left in order to find out which historical events he had depicted. To that extent, I appreciate that Cuaron the person might have a sincere political commitment, and that he might think he has translated that to film effectively. My problem is that the politics is so absurdly relegated to background detail that both of the adult protagonists of the film, and many of the secondary adult characters, seem to have no relation to this background whatsoever, except what is inferred, and certainly no active engagement with the political context that, as you say, is everywhere.

      In doing this, I think he has deprived his characters of a voice, especially Cleo, and that this is similar to how he deprives the massacred student protesters of a voice, except to cry out in pain. The film deals with politics in the same way that films with child protagonists do, putting us in the perspective of characters who cannot fully process what is going on around them; it works in a film like Fanny and Alexander, but I find it ugly and infantilising here. I also think that foregrounding pain and suffering in the way that Cuaron does is an avoidance of politics, not a statement of political commitment. Why are the students and other people like them (and like us), who care about politics, only interesting cinematic subjects to Cuaron when they are being slaughtered, and not before?

      Lastly, it’s a cheap shot, but I think this RT excerpt of a review from one of America’s most right-wing film critics is rather revealing of the effect of Roma’s ‘politics’, regardless of Cuaron’s intent or even his design: https://www.flickr.com/gp/152475926@N05/PA94k7
      ‘Relegates politics to its proper place’ indeed.

      1. Marisa says:

        I understand your interpretation, but it is a European, privileged, reading. You need to understand that political agency is a privilege, especially for an indigenous woman in 1970s Mexico. You think indigenous women who had been forced to leave their families and hometowns to find a job can have the privilege of political agency? It seems to me that you want to narrate the past with the values from the future, from the privileges that have costed so many lives. That is not political engagement, that’s cheap propaganda. That is JK Rowling ‘adding diversity’ to her saga. I really wish I could agree with you because that would mean that there was a possibility for Cleo to have a voice, but she didn’t because in real life an indigenous woman on her circumstances did not have a voice. Even today after Zapatismo, I would hesitate to say they have one because that would be ignoring the conditions that they have to fight every day in order to be heard at least for a couple of hours.

        Cleo’s voice (or the lack of) is the most complex of all the elements I found on the film. The moment when she tells Sofia that she is pregnant, and asks if she is not going to be fired, still haunts me today. There is something on the sound of her voice that embodies all the fear, all the mistreatment that many indigenous people in Mexico have had to endure for centuries.

        I want to agree with your point of the students as cinematic characters because I found very disturbing that long take of the student asking for help. But honestly, I think that was the whole point. Again, the problem might be not knowing what El halconazo represents in contemporary Mexican history. To me, it was a way to put you in the face that Politics with capital P do have a direct impact on your everyday (if the state exploiting the misery of Cleo’s boyfriend upbringing to brainwash him and be trained as a paramilitary is not a portrayal of how Politics affect your everyday life, then there is no way we can reach an agreement here). Furthermore, the way the scene is put on the viewer’s face triggered a horribly familiar sentiment: how as a citizen you are left after knowing that something horrible has happened, whilst having to deal with your own pain, misery, and personal agony. The perpetrator is the same in both cases: it’s the state that wants to send a message to the rest of the students in the country, it’s the state that continuous to perpetrate the unequal structures that consume you as an individual. It was the feeling we had some years ago when 43 students went missing, when the photos of how one of them was brutally murdered circulated. It is the same feeling we have every time something awful happens. We’ve been to the streets hundreds of times, we have claimed, we have shouted, and horrible things still happen. It’s exhausting. But we also have to carry on with our lives. It might sound conformist to a European or an American who think a couple of marches will change things because they do in your countries (or used to, it’s total madness now), but do you have how many years we’ve fight against that monster? Do you have any idea of how many activists have been murdered/kidnapped in Mexico since 1970s?

        Had Cuarón chosen to focus on the students as well, I feel Cleo’s role would have been somehow downgraded (what else could be more important when a massacre of this nature has just happened?). A film like that would probably had been more politically satisfying, but If I consumed cinema to have those experiences, I probably would never even tried to watch the film in the first place (we Mexicans knew this was going to happen the moment it was announced the film was going to talk about El halconazo, but not in depth). I for once celebrate that finally someone tells the story of an indigenous woman living in the capital city, portraying all the crap they have had to endure and keep to themselves. That is a subject that has rarely been done unpatronizingly in Mexican cinema and enough is enough.

        Kyle Smith’s review is pathetic to say the least. But you kind of expect right-wingers to bend everything to fit their own narratives, so I am not at all surprised. I really don’t want to claim that Europeans/Americans can’t review the film, because obviously you can, but you are sooo far away from understanding many aspects of this film by just watching it and doing a quick search on Google. To be honest, I am still waiting that a non middle-class Mexican woman raised in a family of ‘nannies’ (not by one) reviews it. I may have to wait a really long time though.

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