It is early morning on my island. Quiet, a temporality stuck between summer and winter which I truly love, after a rollercoaster of emotions which started when my father was here on Vis just before my tour: London-Belgrade-Zagreb-Berlin and back. I am mentioning this because I didn’t quite know what to expect from Roma. So, just a few days before I would see it at the Soho House in London, my father was swimming in the sea for the first time after 15 years. After the Croatian period of so-called “transition” (from communism to capitalism), my parents went bankrupt, divorced, remarried again, had no jobs, no money, and could only dream of vacation, or the sea. Yet, I literally live on the sea most of the time and, as much as I remind myself it’s not here to stay (because of climate change) and most of the people (even those living here) don’t have this privilege, I take it for granted most of the time. It was a beautiful time with my father, finally having time just to walk and talk all day. He taught me for the first time how to make beans, what we call fažol, grah, or pasulj here. It is the vernacular (cooking based on family recipes traveling from mouth to mouth) which often becomes forgotten or is not even acknowledged as the special language which only life, love, and memory can create.
Roma succeeded to do that in a way which becomes the vernacular itself, which is being saved from oblivion. As Walter Benjamin said: To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was“ “it means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” With Roma, you, my dear compañero, took control of a memory, and not only that, you succeeded in universalizing the vernacular (the “language” closest to your heart), by showing — in a new cinematographic language — how our families and our growing up, whether it is in Mexico, Germany, or Croatia, share a similar “language.”
By the way, I was always suspicious towards the famous Tolstoy quote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or — I admit — I never really understood it. First of all, because Roma shows precisely that also unhappy families are alike. And second, which is the most important impression I had after watching Roma, because it is impossible to say that there is a discernible distinction between a “happy” and “unhappy” family. There is no such thing as a “happy family.” This is the first thing you will realize when you just speak for a few hours longer with a friend from something which is considered the “happiest” family on Earth. Nevertheless, there is also never an “unhappy” family per se, it is precisely through the ways in which we, as parents or children, relatives or domestic workers like Cleo, relate to the punches of life and brutal reality (cheating, divorce, poverty, class struggle…), that a happy family can be made. Well, maybe not “happy.” but a family worth fighting for. Because it is a struggle.
What is so beautiful with Roma is that the family, and all its ups and downs, is so subtly interwoven with the underlying class perspective. The zooming out of Cleo’s activity of washing the clothes on the top of the family house to show that other domestic workers are doing the same, cleaning, cooking, taking kids to and from school, serving them meals, putting them to sleep, is the embodiment of “concrete universality” which shows the class aspect of growing up in Mexico in the 1970s (something which might seem very “concrete” and specific if not unique) and at the same time “universalizes“ it by transferring it to our times (capitalism as the only true universal/ism?).
I had this strange feeling of transposition at a very precise moment of watching Roma at the Soho House. You know, as an underclass from ex-Yugoslavia, I’ve never been to Soho House at Dean Street. I’ve been to 28 Dean Street, of course, where Marx and Jenny lived between 1851 and 1856, sharing their house with Italian teachers and a cook, with rooms which were described as “one of the worst, therefore one of the cheapest, quarters of London.” Three of their five children died while living here. So it is New Year’s Eve in Mexico in 1971, which is being celebrated both by the bourgeoisie and their domestic workers, on two different levels, and as Cleo, after reaching the downstairs party of the proletariat, is served with her soon-to-be-spilled drink, there is a delicious smell of food immersing into the cinema, probably prepared in the kitchen of Soho House in Dean Street in October 2018.
First I thought it was a smell coming directly out of the movie, something like 4D, since the sound of Roma is so superb that I was already having a sort of 3D experience, but then I realized the “transposition” — it was a sound coming from the future, this opportunity to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger, to remember how it was or how it will be “when I was older…,” in Soho in 1851 or in 2018.
The child’s repetition of this sentence (with its prophetic “when I was older, I was a sailor”) was one of the most philosophical parts of the movie, this sort of inversion, which is not really an inversion, but a deconstruction of temporality. As someone who knows how to appreciate Pre-Socratic philosophy (what if Roma itself could be described as a “pre-socratic film” with its elements of Air, Earth, Water and Fire?), you surely know that Heraclitus says that the αἰών (life, time) is “a child playing a game of draughts.”
In his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche would point out that αἰών can mean Fire as well, so Time is a Fire, which is Life itself, that “builds towers of sand like a child at the seashore, piles them up and tramples them down. From time to time it starts the game anew. An instant of satiety — and again it is seized by its need, as the artist is seized by his need to create.”
It is this child playing at the seashore (time and life, yourself and ourselves), which you succeed to recreate in Roma.
P.S. Two months have passed since I sent you this letter. I am back to the island and it is Christmas, perhaps a chance, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, to use this little “crack” in temporality (the “slowness” of time) and devote it to the beloved ones. In the meantime Roma is available on Netflix and is traveling from the past to the future. Of course, to fully experience Roma you have to watch it on big screen and with good sound, but the more I am thinking, perhaps on a small screen Roma becomes the “ghost from the present” (that’s what you recently called the role and function of the camera in Roma) traveling into our homes, families, and even societies. This already happened just before Christmas, when thousands of people lined up at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City, not to see the president — but to see Roma. This “ghost from the present” inverts the usual relation between the movie and the audience, it is not anymore us watching the movie, it is the movie itself (like your described camera) watching us. It is watching us and digging into our innermost conscious and unconscious memories, what we have been and what we have become. And as difficult and emotional as this might get, it is precisely this which brings back what is utterly missing today — namely, hope.