By Dan Clendenin
Every year at this time I feel like we’re in one, long Movie Month. In the last few weeks we’ve had the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild awards. And on February 24 there’s the 91st Academy Awards.
A breakout favorite this year has been the black and white dramatic memoir called Roma. It’s received ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and four nominations for Alfonso Cuarón as the producer, writer, cinematographer, and editor. Roma was streamed on Netflix soon after a limited release in theaters, and it features the debut of the young Mixteco woman Yalitza Aparicio Martínez, who was nominated for Best Actress despite having had no professional training in acting.
There are different ways to watch Roma, but Cuarón reveals his intentions at the end of the movie. As the credits begin to roll, he dedicates it por Libo, that is, in loving memory of his real life nanny Liboria Rodríguez, who served his family when he was a little boy. And that’s what the film is about. The protagonist is a live-in maid named Cleo, played by Martínez, who like many people from her indigenous background left her own family in the impoverished countryside to find a better life in the city. Cleo works for a family of seven in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, where Cuarón grew up around 1970.
Cleo is a powerless person who is subject to socioeconomic forces far beyond her control. Nonetheless, her life as a maid is a vast improvement, thanks to good money for reasonable work in a loving family. Most of all, Cleo is a savior and hero. She loves the family’s four children more than her own. She goes about her daily chores with an admirable dignity. In Roma nothing much happens by way of plot, except for the daily routines of a domestic maid — school drop off and pick up, cleaning up dog poop, washing dishes, doing laundry, and the like.
Cleo reminds me of the sacred ordinary, that God is found in the pots and pans. In her book Mujerista Theology (1996), the Latina theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz described this intersection of the sacred and the mundane, the unexpected and the unexceptional, as lo cotidiano, “the daily thing” or “sacred ordinariness.” Like making supper, planting flowers, or enjoying coffee with a friend.
Roma reminded me of two other favorite films that explore this same theme.
The movie Paterson (2016) made my list of “Favorite Films” for 2018 this past December. The independent film maker Jim Jarmusch employs his trademark slow-moving minimalism in this story about the simple and the sacred. The movie is set in Paterson, NJ. The protagonist is a bus driver named Paterson. He drives the “#23 Paterson” bus.
The decidedly undramatic story follows one week in the life of Paterson the bus driver. Each new day is a carbon copy of the day before, right down to the dialogue and actions. He gets up at exactly the same time, always eats a bowl of Cheerios, walks to work in his blue bus uniform with his green lunch pail, then walks back home at the end of the day, straightens the wobbly mailbox in his weed-infested yard, eats dinner, and walks his dog Marvin to the local bar. His wife Laura sells home made cupcakes at the farmers market, dreams of opening a bakery, and splurges on a $200 guitar that they can ill afford. They are unfailingly tender, polite, and kind to each other. I don’t think there’s one moment of special effects, sex, violence, drugs, or vulgarity in this film.
At night after work, and on his lunch breaks, Paterson the bus driver writes poetry. It’s like the sacred beauty of creative verse explodes into the most mundane of lives. Throughout the film a voice over reads his poems. We also learn that the American poet William Carlos Williams was a Paterson native, who similarly had a “regular” job (as a physician) in addition to his more important avocation. Paterson never speaks to his bus riders, or his fellow patrons at the bar, but he eavesdrops on their conversations as a careful listener and a keen observer of their own very ordinary lives. This in turn becomes material for his poetry.
Then there is Boyhood (2014) by the director Richard Linklater. Dan Chiasson calls it “the greatest American movie I have ever seen in a theater.” Boyhood is about the passage of time. It’s a time-lapse experience that “makes real what we cannot see” at any single point in time. It’s like nothing much ever happens from day to day, but then a decade later everything has changed.
Linklater filmed Boyhood across twelve years, using the same actors, to follow the life of Mason Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane). Coltrane was six years old when they started filming for a few days every year, and eighteen when they finished in 2013. Linklater’s daughter plays Mason’s older sister Samantha. Everyone in this movie ages before our eyes.
In Boyhood we watch twelve years of an ordinary life fly by in three hours. As with Roma and Paterson, there’s no big plot in the normal sense of the word, just the ordinary stuff of daily life. The movie has what Manohla Dargis calls a “distinctly quotidian register.” Life is what happens when no one’s watching. “We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us,” says Anthony Lane, “and we are transformed in the process.”
With little plot or action, the film is simply the succession of ordinary moments that make up the life of a little boy — family vacations, fights about homework, embarrassing haircuts, birthday parties, a first girlfriend, biking with your buddies, and good parents who make some bad choices while doing the best they can. As any parent can attest, although one day can feel like an eternity, Mason’s twelve years pass in a flash.
Within these uneventful days and ordinary lives, there’s a palpable search for the sacred. Mason asks his dad if there is any “real magic” in the world, like elves that really exist. He’s given a toy owl, a symbol of wisdom. His dad gives a talk at school about gods and goddesses.
Mason also visits his stepmother’s family. They are conservative Christians, and Chiasson observes how Linklater portrays them as “compassionate, kind, funny, and even a little bawdy.” For his birthday they give Mason a Bible with his name on it, along with a rifle. The scene includes a sermon by a likeable Texas preacher about doubting Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Linklater thus “captures moments in time and relinquishes them as he moves from year to year,” says Dargis. “He isn’t fighting time but embracing it in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty.”
I like how the Catholic Gregory Popcak writes that while we meet God in the Daily Mass at church, we also meet him in the Domestic Mess at home. God’s grace “allows us to be transformed by doing little acts of family life with great love; wiping noses, drying tears, drawing pictures, playing games, calming fears.”
Popcak concludes: “We don’t need to escape our homes to find God and sanctity. We don’t need to run away from home to pray. We need to follow Christ’s example, and empty ourselves, entering more deeply into the mystery of the domestic mess and finding the wholeness and holiness that waits for us there.”
For further reflection
Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004)
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.
Milosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.
Dan Chiasson, “Making Real What We Cannot See,” NYRB (September 25, 2014).
Manohla Dargis, “From Baby Fat to Stubble,” The New York Times (July 10, 2014).
Anthony Lane, review of Boyhood in The New Yorker (July 21, 2014).
Gregory Popcak, Catholic Exchange (October 9, 2013).
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