Hollywood Needs to Make More Melodramas

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma Reaffirms the Power of the Melodrama

There are many reasons Alfonso Cuaron took home the award for Best Director last February at the Academy Awards: one of these is his appropriation of the melodramatic mode. With Roma, Cuaron proves that the melodrama, having been critiqued extensively in the past for being overly sentimental and thus lacking in social acuteness, is a genre that in fact can be both sensational and real.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which he both directed and edited, demonstrates both an intimate and far-reaching exemplar of converging social forces during the Mexican Dirty War. In the face of civil and moral strife, the main characters, who belong to differing socio-economic classes, unite themselves in the personal sphere as a positive result of the moral chaos and violence both experience. The film handles the intersection of class and gender in a way that honors a realist representation of the opposing classes to which the characters belong, while at times using spectacle as a device to make these representations more apparent. Cuaron employs the melodramatic mode in his film in the following ways: the uniquely stylized camera work, reliance on spectacle to convey meaning/visual excess, the use of dramatic reversals, and the “clash of opposites.” Collectively, these filmic methods create Cuaron’s personal approach to a melodramatic mode that aims to uncover the moral values that are both obvious and obscured by the surface reality in this modest borough of Mexico City, Roma.

Throughout the film, the camera serves as a careful and inclusive observer. It tracks the domestic and cityscapes with a slow, sweeping intensity so as not to leave any physical details of the neighborhood out of the narrative. In doing so the visual details are given priority over the verbally relayed aspects of the narrative in order to grasp at meanings which might otherwise be concealed by the cover of language. (There is much more attention paid to the complexity of the visual atmosphere than the textual.) The film’s visuals are a function of the camera work, as a general rule, and report reality in tandem with the character’s dialogue, but because of the broad and comprehensive filming approach, extend the meaning beyond the literal implications of the language. The emphatic focus on capturing clearly the particulars of the setting indicates the filmmaker’s desire for the audience to pay close attention to the truth which the physical reality holds and not to miss these particulars while following along with the verbal cues. In other words, the purpose of the penetrating clarity, detailing, and tonality of the panoramic camera work is to pay attention to the ways in which what is being shown onscreen both compliments and differs from what is being told.

In Gledhill’s chapter “The Melodramatic Field, An Investigation” of her book Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film she cites several ideas of the scholar Peter Brooks on the operation of language in the melodramatic mode. One of them being:

“Melodrama’s recourse to gestural, visual and music excess constitutes the expressive means of what Brooks calls the “text of muteness.” Devices such as dumb show, pantomime, tableaux, and spectacle reach toward meanings which cannot be generated from the language code” (16).

This idea by Brooks corresponds to one of the language processes of the melodramatic mode described above in which language is insufficient in representing the visual reality of the film’s world and in some cases can go as far as to contradict what is being shown on screen. In Roma, Cleo gets pregnant after having an affair with the student radical Fermin. Cleo thinks that Fermin really cares for her, because he says so in a scene before they become intimate, but his words are revealed to be completely at odds with his true feelings for her. Essentially, he tricks Cleo into having sex with him. Cleo decides that she is going to confess the pregnancy to Fermin. One day they are at a cinema together and she tells him what is going on. When she does he responds, “That’s good right?” Fermin does not even ask if the child is his. A few beats happen and Fermin tells Cleo that he needs to use the bathroom. The two are seated in one of the last rows of the theatre and meanwhile far in the background, as Fermin leaves the theatre, the viewer observes a long shot of a plane slowly crashing. He tells Cleo, “I won’t be long” but the camera captures something different. Another long shot occurs with Cleo returning her gaze to the cataclysmic events happening on the big screen. The shot is heavy as Cleo waits for Fermin to join her again to finish the film, but he never comes back.

Roma dedicates another lengthy scene to the portrayal of Fermin’s neglect to support Cleo during her impending pregnancy. In a later scene Cleo seeks Fermin out at a martial arts practice, which happens to be a training session for the violent student uprising against the government in the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971- an event which is depicted later in the film. And once again Fermin’s dialogue contradicts the truth of the embodied situation. Their conversation starts off with Cleo asking him if his training is “for the Olympics.” He responds to her, “Something like that.” This is the first untruth. Then Fermin asks Cleo, “Who told you I was here?” to which she lies about who showed her to his practice grounds- the second untruth. And finally, when Cleo forcefully attests to the child belonging to him, Fermin, lying to himself, tells her “no fucking way”-the third and most bitter lie. Because of the way Cuaron structures the film, it seems obvious to the audience that Fermin is the father of Cleo’s baby and is evading his responsibility. Yet the melodramatic mode is still necessary here to show the extremity of the moral conflict. The emphasis on visual language and the duplicity of the dialogue contributes to a more wholesome and perceptive understanding of the moral badness and irony that lies within Cleo’s predicament. The intrinsic irony in this scene is profound- the moment right after Fermin denies his own child, he runs off to jump on the literal bandwagon of a group of semi-organized student radicals that are going to later cause great strife in Roma.

The contradictory impulses very explicitly shown in this scene do point to the progressive potential of the melodramatic mode in that one side of the contradiction, in Roma and in most melodramas, includes an admirable model of behavior. This admirable model is one of challenging the limitations of the status quo, that conveys to the audience an example of how far one must go to enact any degree of moral improvement in one’s environment. While these efforts aren’t always productive, they at least demonstrate ways in which an individual or group of individuals can resist the injustices of their social reality. In the scene discussed above, Cleo’s resistance to Fermin’s irresponsibility and moral ineptness is exaggerated in the visual spectacle that surrounds her journey to find him to relay the message once again, even after his lack of reception to it the first time around. The elements of her pregnancy that contribute to the exaggeration of her courageous resistance to Fermin include the fact that his location is remote and concealed from most of the other inhabitants of the neighborhood, her fear and embarrassment that he will reject her pleas again, and the danger of venturing out of her domestic sphere during a time of civil unrest. The application of the melodramatic mode here exhibits to the audience that despite the social, emotional, and material realities Cleo faces in this situation, she resists the moral corruption of her society anyway.

Towards the end of the film, Cleo accompanies Mrs. Teresa and her children to a beachside vacation, which they partake in to get the children away from the house while the father is packing up his things to leave. During this time she is devastated by a prior plot point in which her baby dies in the process of childbirth. After a day spent at the beach the family is back at home in the beach cottage. Cleo is helping one of the children get dressed after a shower when the child asks her, “Have you gone mute?” Cleo assures him she has not, but moments later the child who joins his mother at the kitchen table tells her, “Cleo’s gone mute.” Cleo’s quiet and reserved disposition, as a result of the grief caused by the death of her child, forces both the family she works for and the audience to try to discern what she is feeling through visual cues rather than verbal. The visual language both people onscreen and offscreen are summoned to consider here challenges the mode with which they usually gain information about their surroundings thus forcing them to view their social reality from a new perspective, which is another progressive component of the melodramatic mode.

In a scene at the beginning of the film, Cleo is on the hacienda’s rooftop, doing the washing for the family. She is joined by two of the sons whom she is keeping an eye on. They are playing a type of war game while she washes, each of the boys holding an imitation gun. After the younger boy metaphorically kills the older boy, the older boy becomes upset, and claims to the younger about the terms of the game- he says, “It’s my game- you weren’t supposed to die.” The younger boy surrenders from the game because, as he tells his brother, the terms of the game are unfair. The camera then captures the young boy pretending to die, and when Cleo goes over to him and asks what is wrong, he says he can not tell her, because he is dead. Cleo then surrenders to the game of sorts the young boy is playing with her by copying him and pretending to die too. This frustrates the younger boy who can no longer talk to Cleo for the time being as she too is feigning death. This scene demonstrates a crucial discrepancy between what is being said onscreen and the visual reality that is being filmed; the fact that both characters say out loud that they are dead contradicts their onscreen gestures of dying. It points to the unreliability of narrative storytelling. Here the narrative is deceitful in both its textual and visual implications, unlike the earlier referenced scenes which were merely deceitful on their textual terms. Thus this scene is a dramatic reversal- on behalf of both the younger boy and Cleo- a tableau of the repressed emotions imparted by the domestic and political climate. Peter Brooks also writes on melodrama, which Gledhill includes in her book mentioned above that:

“The spectacle, moral polarisation, and dramatic reversals for which melodrama is so often criticized serve the purpose of clarification, identification, and palpable demonstration of repressed “ethical and psychic” forces, which nevertheless constitute compelling imperatives” (16).

The spectacle here offers a heightened understanding of the pervasiveness of turmoil in Roma, Mexico; It affects everyone. Cleo is oppressed by her lack of social mobility and limited opportunities and the young boy is oppressed mentally and socially by the wartime environment in which he is growing up. This tableau simultaneously exhibits multiple stark binaries of gender, race, age, and class that produce a moral identity in the clash of the opposite figures. In an essay on the Jane Campion film The Piano, Kathleen McHugh writes that “Melodrama usually includes a narrative that consistently confounds encounters between genders, generations, nations, and races”(3). In this image of Cleo and the young boy, all of these encounters are juxtaposed. While the cultural discursivity that this spectacle points to is quite clear, one danger this feature of the melodramatic mode reckons with is that of causing too much confusion on the viewers’ behalf of how to interpret the confounding encounters and moral polarization. Melodrama ought to balance fantastical components like spectacle with more realistic components in order to make sure the narrative is not so shapeless that the heightened contrasts utilized do not lose their meanings. Cuaron expertly balances these components in Roma, thus rendering a moral identity of the historical situation in the Mexican neighborhood by the end of the film, which is arguably the central aim of the melodramatic mode; He manages to forge a newfound comprehension of the moral atmosphere during this historical moment and gives other genres trying to do the same some serious competition.

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