Contrasting visions of Mexico: Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ and Rodrigo Pla’s ‘La Zona’

Sander Berg

I first saw Rodrigo Plá’s La zona at the London Film Festival in 2007 and spent the next ten years looking to buy it on DVD. I thought it would be a great film to show my pupils because it would offer them an insight into class divisions and corruption in Mexico and, by extension, Latin America. But although the film had some success at international film festivals, it was not a commercial hit and was not to be found anywhere. These days, however, the film is available on Amazon Prime and DVD and can at last reach the audience it deserves.

Amazon’s rival Netflix has had more immediate success with another Mexican film: Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s much-lauded piece of cinema filmed in gorgeous black and white. In 2018 it was nominated for ten Oscars and walked away with three (Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director).

Since both films are set in Mexico City and deal with class, politics and violence, it is rewarding to compare and contrast them to find out how differently they reflect Mexican reality.  The Pre-U examiners have also found them irresistible, choosing them (alongside Diego Luna’s Abel) to represent El cine mexicano contemporáneo, Topic 1 of the Topics and Texts syllabus for 2022-24.

Roma— A Nostalgic Evocation of the Past

Roma is billed as a homage to the director’s indigenous childhood nanny, called Cleo in the film. But perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a meticulous and nostalgic evocation of the filmmaker’s own youth in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in the early 1970s, even if the story centres on his nana

The film pays great attention to detail and is replete with symbols and meta-cinematographic references. The sound track has exquisite depth and there are some beautiful panoramic shots of the Mexican countryside, as well as elaborate tracking shots — for example, following Cleo running through the streets. 

The most striking aspect of Roma is probably that it is filmed in immaculate black and white, which gives it a classic, perhaps even timeless quality. On celluloid, Mexico City looks clean and, in parts, modern. Overall, the film exudes the warmth of reminiscence and childhood memories, despite upsetting events like the separation of the parents or an earthquake striking a hospital.

There are other, more disturbing elements too, including scenes of political violence. At one point armed militiamen, among them Cleo’s ex-boyfriend, enter a department store where Cleo is shopping and kill a protester who had sought refuge there. This is a reference to the Halconazo, the Corpus Christi Massacre of 10 June 1971, although this is not explicitly mentioned in the film.

Cleo’s rejection by the abusive boyfriend after she becomes pregnant and her subsequent miscarriage are the most traumatic events that she has to deal with. Yet in spite of these traumas and her being the film’s protagonist, we don’t really get to know her well. She is subdued and quiet except when with other indigenous domestic workers or singing lullabies in Mixtec to her employers’ children. We know her family live somewhere in a village far away where there are disputes about land, but we never find out how this makes her feel. The mother of the family attempts to establish a faux — or at best temporary — bond of solidarity with Cleo when she too is abandoned by her husband, but Cleo is always reminded of her status as a servant, despite being referred to as a member of the family.

This lack of interrogation is precisely why some critics, the postmodern philosopher Slavoj Zizek among them, have found fault with Cuarón’s masterpiece. The film is entirely conceived from a white middle-class perspective — it could even be called self-indulgent — and is marked by a nostalgic vision of a past that perhaps never was, or that was not the same for everyone.

La zona– The Shape of Things to Come

The opposite is true for La zona, set in a dystopian future that has already arrived. The director Rodrigo Plá at first thought that the script, written by his wife (like himself, from a family who fled Uruguay during the dictatorship of the 1970s and settled in Mexico), was exaggerated. On further investigation, he discovered that the stark contrast between gated communities, with their emerald-green lawns and golf courses that are separated from the adjacent grim and grimy slums by high walls, is an everyday reality in many countries in Latin America, and indeed the world.

The wall surrounding the gated community is the central symbol of the film. It protects and imprisons those inside in equal measure. When, one stormy night, an advertising pylon falls onto it, creating a bridge, three young men from the slums decide to enter “la zona” in order to commit burglary. Two of them are shot — their bodies later dumped in a garbage bin — while the youngest, Miguel, hides in a basement. There, he is discovered by a boy his own age called Alejandro, who decides to keep his presence a secret. As the story develops, you get the sense that, had they not been divided by class, they might have been friends. 

The gated community has a special arrangement with the local authorities whereby they don’t need to accept any police presence on site unless a serious crime has been committed. In order not to lose their privilege, they decide to keep law enforcement at bay and take matters into their own hands, organising a man-hunt, quite literally, for the remaining intruder. A policeman gets wind of this and tries to rescue the boy, but he is thwarted by his superior, who has been bribed. In the event, the good citizens of the zone turn into a vigilante mob and kill Miguel. Alejandro smuggles out the body and arranges for it to be buried with at least a semblance of dignity.

Separate Worlds and Hard Questions

In contrast to Roma, La zona does not shy away from asking hard questions about the socio-political reality of modern Mexico. The first impression may be that the film is rather Manichaean: the monochromatic slum versus the Technicolor gated community, the corrupt and evil rich versus the meritorious poor, but the script is more nuanced than that. There is no attempt to justify the burglary, but at the same time we are offered some of Alejandro’s father’s back story, which helps us to understand why those who can afford it might want to take the law into their own hands. The policeman who wants to rescue the boy mainly does so out of resentment towards his superiors and the wealthy residents, not because he is morally upright. La zona demands that we look more closely at the reality of the Latin American class divide, as a result of which the rich and the poor live out their lives in entirely separate worlds. At the end of the film, one member of the community decides to leave, and explains: ‘Cuando mi hijo crezca y pregunte, ¿cómo le voy a explicar por qué vivimos adentro de un muro?’

We are therefore presented with two contrasting visions of modern, urban Mexico. Both films acknowledge class privileges and show separate spheres that their characters inhabit. Cleo may not live behind a wall, but in economic terms she is nonetheless ‘gated’, sharing a small room with another maid. When her employers’ family celebrates New Year’s Eve as guests on a huge estate, there is a clear physical separation between the space occupied by the rich white revellers and the basement where the indigenous and mestizo workers are celebrating. Whereas in Roma this separation is presented as a given and never questioned, it becomes the central focus of La zona.

This is only the most obvious difference between the films; there are many more. The two works have very different aims and can be appreciated for their particular style of narrative and cinematography, which are excellent in both.  However, there are intersections, divergences and overlaps that make studying them side by side worthwhile. 

Tips on Teaching Roma and La zona

Teaching films to A Level students makes a lot of sense. They are generally well-versed in visual media and have a good intuitive understanding, even if they mainly see films as entertainment rather than an object of study. Still, it does not take much to encourage students to analyse a film in the way they would a literary text and ask questions that go beyond mere matters of taste or plot. Why do we see what we see? What means does the director use? What is problematic in this depiction? What do you think the director is trying to show us? Is he or she successful? Why (not)? What does the film have in common with other films you have seen or studied? How are similar themes dealt with? Can you explain these differences? What does the film tell us about the society in which it is set? What moral or ethical questions does the film raise? And so on and so forth.

In the case of Roma and La zona I have already referred to the contrasting treatment of the class divide. Other avenues to explore could include violence, gender roles, conflict within families, friendships and relationships, solidarity within and across classes, and much more.

It is not difficult to find film reviews in Spanish and English, as well as interviews with the directors and academic articles on JSTOR for example. It is usually also possible to find work packs or even the script. All this should offer information and provide insights with which students can engage, helping their understanding of the films and picking up new ideas, even if they disagree with a particular interpretation.

I often show other films in parallel to those we are studying, though without delving into forensic analysis or background reading. After studying Roma, I showed my students the quirky Chilean comedy La nana, which is also about a domestic worker, and made them write an essay comparing the two works. A good film to watch in conjunction with La zona is Machuca, which tells the story of an unlikely cross-class friendship that is brutally ended by Pinochet’s coup of 1973. 

In order to give them a broader view of the political history of modern Latin America, we also watched La historia oficial, an Argentine film that also features on the Pre-U 2022-24 syllabus (Topic 3) about a history teacher’s quest to find out the truth about her adopted daughter. También la lluvia (now in its final year in the Pre-U syllabus) is also ideally pitched for Sixth Form hispanists, with its story of Spaniards in Bolivia making a film about the Conquest while ironically, and unconsciously, re-enacting European exploitation in the process. 

The idea is that students learn to appreciate films as objects of serious academic study and, through these chosen works, learn about the socio-political, cultural and historical reality of Latin America. Above all, the hope is that they become critical and engaged viewers of film, rather than passive consumers.