Three Things I Learned from Watching ‘Roma’

Roma Poster

[WARNING: Contains spoilers.]

By the time I reached my twenties, I had seen a number of Mexican films, many of them produced during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. My favorites were those directed by the incomparable Spanish director Luis Buñuel—titles such as ‘Subida al cielo,’ ‘Ensayo de un crimen,’ and ‘Nazarín.’ Recently, I saw ‘Roma’ by Alfonso Cuarón, the talented director of ‘Y Tu Mamá También,’ ‘Children of Men,’ and ‘Gravity.’ And, like those great films of the golden age, I was thrilled to see Cuarón had decided to tell his story in black-and-white. Here is the film’s logline:

A story that chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family’s maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

Doesn’t sound all that compelling when you put it that way, right? Well, this film has depth, my friend. And tragedy, suffering, and love. But it is also a celebration of the everyday lives of women who must go on, no matter the obstacles. For me, three things stood out.

A Woman’s Plight Is Universal
When we first meet the maid Cleo, we see her washing down the enclosed patio of the family’s home in the city. The director starts and ends the movie with water. Water washes, it breaks—signaling birth—and it almost kills in the form of an angry ocean.

Cleo is sweet and beloved by the family. As she goes about her daily duties, her mistress Sra. Sofía is coming apart as her marriage crumbles before her eyes, her husband having decided to leave the children and her for another woman. Then, after repeated sex with her boyfriend Fermín, Cleo finds herself pregnant. When she informs him, his churlish response is, “What’s it to me?”

Unlike the heartless men in this story, the women band together. Upon learning of her condition, Sra. Sofía doesn’t hesitate to assure Cleo that everything will be fine and that she must remain with the family. As time goes on, she even sends Cleo and Sra. Sofía’s mother to the furniture store to purchase a crib.

There’s really nothing new in the situations these women find themselves in. But it’s their response to misfortune and their determination to carry on that’s so moving. Toward the end of the film, Sra. Sofía tells Cleo, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

Violence Is Easy, Love Is Hard
‘Roma’ takes place in the early 1970s against a backdrop of violence. Protesting students are shot dead in the streets by the police. The Tlatelolco massacre, during which nearly fifty civilians were killed at the hands of the police and the army, had actually occurred in 1968. I’m curious to know whether the violence continued into the 1970s as the film suggests. What struck me most about those chaotic scenes was, one minute the cops are sitting around smoking, and the next they are firing into the crowd.

Speaking of violence, Fermín’s answer to his miserable upbringing is to better himself through martial arts. Though he has the talent and the discipline for it, he has none of the maturity. He’s still as angry as ever and, after hearing he is a father, he threatens to beat up Cleo—and her unborn child. Then later at the furniture store, he joins in the street violence, shooting the innocent.

Family Is Everything
Overall, aside from the doctor who attends Cleo at the hospital, men don’t come out looking too good in this thing. They are, for the most part, corrupt, self-centered, and brutish. In the final scenes, it’s the women and the children who are left behind to get on with their lives.

Cleo loves the family so much that, when two of the children are carried off in the waves of a turbulent sea, she goes in to rescue them, even though she cannot swim. In the end, she doesn’t have Fermín, and she doesn’t have her child. But she has the family.

And they have her.

Three Things I Learned from The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Cover

I don’t recall where I first came across The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but when I read the book description, I knew I had to have it. I won’t go into the details of the novel since its breadth is vast and includes dozens of fascinating characters, not the least of which are Woland and his bizarre retinue. Here is a highly condensed plot summary that I adapted from Wikipedia:

Satan appears in Moscow at the Patriarch Ponds in the guise of “Professor Woland,” along with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed valet Koroviev, a gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth, a fanged hitman named Azazello, and Hella, a beautiful female vampire. As soon as they arrive, they begin wreaking havoc. First up on the list is the murder of Berlioz, the head of the literary bureaucracy Massolit.

Major episodes in the novel’s first half include a satirical portrait of Massolit and their Griboyedov house; Satan’s magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed, and gullibility of the new Russian elite; and Woland and his retinue taking over the late Berlioz’s apartment.

Part two introduces Margarita, the mistress of an embittered author, known as the Master, who has written a book about Pontius Pilate. She refuses to despair over her lover or his work and vows to remain with him rather than going back to her husband. Later, she is invited to the Devil’s midnight ball, where Woland offers her the chance to become a witch with supernatural powers.

As a reward for serving as hostess of the ball, Woland grants Margarita a wish, which he had expected her to use to release her lover—but which she spends instead on Pontius Pilate, freeing him from his shackle of guilt and infamy and allowing him, at last, to walk alongside Jesus, whose philosophy he so admired. Then, thanks to Woland, the Master and Margarita “die” only to leave civilization with the Devil as all of Moscow’s cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun.

Okay, let’s get started.

Never Accept Anything from the Devil
Most people know this, but that doesn’t stop an audience at the Variety Theatre from taking Koroviev’s irresistible offer of free money and new clothes and running into the street, where the clothes suddenly vanish, and the money turns into strips of blank paper—or worse, foreign currency, which is illegal.

The corollary to this advice is, never get into an argument with the devil—especially over something you know nothing about. Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz learns this lesson the hard way at the beginning of the novel when he attempts to tell Woland that Jesus never actually existed, thus promoting the state’s official atheist position. Irritated with this pompous ass, Woland arranges for Berlioz to die in a freak accident with a tram, where he is quickly dispatched by beheading.

Totalitarianism Makes Everyone a Crook
During the period in which the novel was written, Bulgakov was living in the Soviet Union under Stalin. As the author described it, pretty much everyone was conning everyone for money, power, position, or a combination of all three. People were hoarding rubles under mattresses and foreign currency in hidden compartments.

Because decent apartments were so hard to come by in Moscow, people resorted to all kinds of deception. Styopa, the director of the Variety Theatre and Berlioz’s roommate at Bolshaya Sadovaya 302-bis, had denounced at least five innocent people as spies just so he and Berlioz could acquire their spacious apartment.

Russians Are as Nutty as We Are
The characters portrayed in the novel are not only colorful but easily recognizable. They long for love and money. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives on husbands. They insult one another and kiss up, depending on the circumstances. They overeat and overdrink. They gossip. And some end up in the loony bin.

The Master is residing there, along with a frustrated young poet who goes by the name of Homeless after attempting to chase the devil and catch him for killing his friend Berlioz. George Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies at the Variety Theatre, also ends up in the asylum after having his head torn off, then put back on, when he had the audacity to suggest that what Koroviev was doing onstage was nothing more than tricks and deception.

The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940 and is as fresh today as when it was first published in the 1960s. The humor is sharp—sometimes caustic, which is necessary to depict the frustration of living as a “citizen” under Stalin. There’s an especially poignant tone that reflects the sorrow of being an artist in a heartless, atheist state. The novel is a gem that in a highly entertaining way gives everyone their due, including the devil.