Communicating Vessels: ROMA.

This is a translation of a review I originally wrote in Spanish. The translation was partially helped by DeepL.

Sergio Pitol has used the word polyphony to describe the essence of 19th century Russian novel. Although much has been written about the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol, Pitol’s use of the concept of polyphony took me by surprise as a way to think about the specificity of Russian novels. Pitol then goes on to describe the multiplicity of voices heard in those novels. Voices arising from the main action, of course, but also a number of background voices, commenting, contradicting, reviewing the historical moment, talking about the next dance at court. Voices. Overlapping. Pitol attributes them to the structure of those palaces or apartments, inhabited by many relatives and serfs, with thin divisions between rooms; apartments where the fights and burps of the neighbor were always heard, where the groans of pleasure were always overheard as they made love in the rooms next door, as well as conjugal scenes, births and crying for deaths, life as a whole.

Perhaps the first impression when seeing ROMA, the Cuarón movie, bears some analogy. The movie has been described by Magola Delgado as many movies in one. Not just many overlapping stories, but really many films put together in one, as if the incredible transparency of black and white, the absence of opacity achieved through the absence of color accomplished the first magic: connecting the “surfaces” of the many films in one, through communicating vessels / passages / singularities / transparencies.

So far, I have not seen the central role of windows in the film in written reviews. María Clara, who is always sensitive to these issues, made me notice it from the first time we watched the movie. The windows, the gaze through the windows, is almost a character in the film. As are also the multiple formal symmetries (such as the handles in the photo, or the presence of the airplane reflected at the beginning and seen directly at the end of the movie).

We constantly move from one area of memory to another, as in a half-dreamed reality, half-way unreal but rendered far more real by that possibility of communicating vessels between different times. The metaphor of the güerito (blondinet), the youngest child, constantly talking about his adult life in the past tense, is also there the metaphor of the film.

There are many “time capsule” moments in the movie – a bit like in the other space movie they go see as a family. They go in a car, with the family driver, passing through a historic student demonstration before it gets violent. The car moves slowly, and the transparency again opens up to evoke the extremely harsh demonstrations of the 1970s in Latin America (during the Corpus Christi one in 1971 in Mexico more than 100 demonstrators were killed); they pass alongside police officers prepared to hit hard, and then arrive at a furniture store to… buy a crib.

The routine, the familiarity of that store (which could be on Calle 26 in Bogotá in the 1970s) and the street outside at the same time brought back very strong memories of my own childhood (I was two/three years old at the time of those events) in a place close to the National University in Bogotá. From the apartment, third floor, you could see the Colombian police chasing the disbanded students through a street parallel to 30th. More than once students took refuge in my parents’ place.

In the movie the situation reaches more tragedy – fortunately in what I had to witness in those years I didn’t actually get to see gunshots, but I did see armed policemen beating students, of course I did – and I knew of my mother’s fear from realizing that the Chemistry Building (where we often were) could be entered at any time by policemen.

Yes – polyphony was for Pitol the word of choice for Russian novel. Here it would be something like polyicony, as in many images at the same time, overlapping but not in a physical way but rather communicating through transparencies, as in a sheaf of unfolding stalks.

One of those many films, a very important one, is the Cleo movie. The story of Cleo, the first film that most people see in ROMA (and that made some dumb high wrought ladies in a Bogotá cinema angry – they came out saying “what a horror, a movie made to honor a housemaid”), the one that bothers some as “condescending” and fascinates others. To me the story seemed straightforward and plain, splendidly acted. Some reviewers in the United States seem upset by the fact that Cleo “does not speak” (but this is not true: she does speak a lot, but with her friend Adela, in Mixtec) and is not “empowered” (but the memory would have been false had Cleo been portrayed as a 21st century woman).


Cleo’s gazes are another of the film’s communicating vessels. Fear of the future, communication with children, the look of tacit understanding with the other woman, the mother of the family, silences and gestures. All of that is an organic part of the memory of those of us who were born in Latin America in the years before 1970; in a painful way. The film sets everything in front of us without uttering words.

There are mysterious scenes in the film. One of those is, during a forest fire in a finca on New Year’s Eve, the gringo disguised as a monster singing a ballad in English. I sense some reference to something there; Nero’s drunkenness as Rome burns, some metaphor of the United States. A mystery (to me). Another one takes place in Ciudad Neza (Netzahualcóyotl, Mexico City’s biggest slum, part of the misery belt common to all Latin American large cities). When they arrive, they launch a man like a rocket in a neighborhood circus show…

in a very powerful image loaded with some metaphorical meaning. This was the time of space travel films, of Apollos visiting the moon, of American or Russian men lost in space. In this neighbourhood of muddy streets this image of the man-projectile being fired seems to be some kind of homage to Fellini’s Amarcord or La Strada, transposed to Neza and seen (again) from the distance of reconstructed memory, from the communicating vessel, the singularity of a certain incoherence.

Meanwhile, Cleo is looking for her missing boyfriend Fermín —missing when Cleo told him that he would be a father. Fermín, the martial arts enthusiast from Ciudad Neza, who ran away from a movie theater when Cleo told her that they had “a commission”, that they were expecting a child.

Fermín disappears (we only knew about him from his memorable scene months before, naked making kendo moves with a rod pulled out of a curtain in a hotel and telling Cleo his story: when his mother died, he was taken to live in Neza and was saved by martial arts from becoming a criminal…

… while again the hotel’s windows and the mirror give us that double reflection of the world (the photography is impressive there – it is not only Fermín’s corporeality, embodying his being in such a direct way, but the reflection of an entire universe there in those windows)).

Fermín (whom everyone seems to hate, as he embodies the most basic male chauvinism – very aggressive with Cleo when she tells him in Neza that they are pregnant) is actually doubly a victim. He grows up in a wretched place in Latin America and actually finds in the practice of martial arts, as so many young men in the world, a lifesaver… only to be used later by the Mexican government as a shock force against students. Fermín incarnates the life story of so many Latin American paramilitary members, of so many guerrillas or soldiers who find self-respect in the practice of martial arts – but end up being turned into death machines by the same system that generated (generates) the Ciudades Neza of Latin America.

Death appears in several moments, with photography very anchored in the great tradition of Mexico, in Juan Rulfo and Tina Modotti. In one of the central moments of this film, which has no unique central moment (as there are so many interwoven films), this scene appears almost isolated from the rest, almost without communication with anything…

… almost no communication with anything yet at the same time connected to everything. The grandmother, Cleo and the driver leave the store, they don’t see this close-up because they are living their own other film in parallel… and Mexico in 1971 is going through this kind of bloodshed.

A very personal story (and one that did not necessarily happen in all families) is that of solidarity between two women, the two main women, Señora Sofia and Cleo – both abandoned, albeit in different ways, by their men. In spite of the immense class differences between the two, there is a bond of a kind of empathy between the two of them.

In many Latin American families of that time the immediate reaction would have been to expel Cleo just because she was pregnant. In fact, it’s the first thing Cleo asks – will you not expel me? There is in Sofía some subtlety in the answer and an understanding of Cleo’s situation; perhaps caused by the knowledge that her husband had abandoned her.

Both the first and the second story were so common—husbands who “went to Quebec” to conferences to never return (in my non-immediate family something similar happened, and the (then) children were left with strong traumas), female employees who became pregnant from their respective “Fermines”, that here the part of memory is really direct and perhaps less mediated by windows and reflections.

Fernando Zalamea has written immense pages about other types of communicating vessels in cinema, in Tarkovsky – and in mathematics, in Riemann or in Grothendieck. The film is manifold, it is multiplicity/variety full of folds, memories of other films (how not to think of Buñuel when we see the rich on the estate shooting into empty space, being emptyness? …

… How can we fail to remember similar scenes lived in rich cousins’ fincas during childhood?), full of ramifications, of singularities that intercommunicate different independent films – but which Cuarón achieves through his windows, reflections and eyes – Cleo’s gaze above all, and full of splendid staircases (those of the house and above all those of the hacienda, which connect the world “from above”, of the rich and their guns and their whisky and their cigarettes and their maids, with the world “from below”, that of pulque and the stories of land (ejidos) and popular music).

But above all, how can we not dream as we see this image? (Perhaps the most emblematic: the connected heads, the child who remembers and the woman who would rather be dead, the rooftops of Roma and the clothes as a sheaf of transparencies – clothes washed from the human miseries that can only be guessed at, the secretions, sweats and humors of our human condition in stains in briefs and stockings and brassieres – and the infinite diffuse light?)