The Oscars are just a few days away, and if you haven’t had a chance to see Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Mexico City opus Roma, you can still watch it on Netflix or at your local theater. It’s been nominated in ten categories, including best picture, foreign language film, director, cinematography, lead actress and supporting actress. The film is so popular that you can read many different reviews of it, covering very interesting aspects that I won’t go into here. What I want to write about is the film’s nude scene. Most reviewers don’t mention that scene, or do so only in passing. One reviewer called the scene a gratuitous mistake that would limit the film to the art house circuit.
A brief description of the scene, including the lead-up: We see the main character, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and her date, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), decide to skip the double date movie and go to a park, although not without Fermín palming something suspicious – a condom? – from his friend in the background. But instead of the park, in the scene immediately following, we see Fermín standing nude in a bathroom. He contemplates the shower rod, removes it from the wall, and then performs about a minute of nude martial arts in which his body is completely visible except his feet and lower legs. He is athletic, his moves are aggressive. It becomes evident that we are seeing this from the perspective of Cleo, who is sitting in the bed of a hotel room – clothed, as much as we can see of her – watching this display with delight and surprise, holding the blanket up to cover her mouth and have something to bite. When Fermín sits down, his back to Cleo and the camera, he tells her about his hard-knock upbringing, and proclaims that martial arts saved his life. Then he turns partly toward Cleo, and we see him move in close to kiss her as the scene ends. Later in the film, we confirm that his display was something like a courtship dance or mating ritual, and their liaison has left Cleo pregnant.
An analysis: There is a winking foreshadowing of the nudity to come that speaks to the viewer, ironically, from a piece of clothing. When Fermín meets Cleo at the torta (sandwich) shop before walking to the cinema, he is wearing a t-shirt with one of the original “Love Is…” designs by Kim Casali that had become immensely popular at the time (the film takes place in 1970-71). The “Love Is…” designs always a show a nude couple – a man and woman, as evident only from their hair since no genitals are shown – with a phrase that completes the ellipsis. Fermín’s shirt reads “amor es…” on the top and “recordar tu primer beso” (remembering your first kiss) below. It’s what he wears immediately before wearing nothing. But as far as love, or “amor” (palindrome of Roma), well… he does not love Cleo, and abandons her when she tells him she is carrying his child.
I argue that the scene is not gratuitous, because as the movie unfolds, Fermín’s later scenes, progressively more violent, connect back to it. The martial arts practice scene, set in an open field, accurately captures the enthusiasm for martial arts in Mexico at that time. Featuring over a hundred men, the scene also shows the accumulated aggression that foreshadows Fermín’s next appearance: In the scene that recreates the halconazo or Corpus Christi massacre on 10 June 1971, Fermín shows up among the paramilitary aggressors, and ends up threatening Cleo, pistol drawn. Ironically again, he is wearing the same “amor es” shirt while wielding his weapon. When he leaves, Cleo’s water breaks from the stress of the encounter, initiating a chaotic hospital sequence.
We never see Fermín unarmed – even when he first appears, he has nunchuks sticking out of his back pocket. Given this aspect of his character, I think the nude scene serves to highlight and foreshadow his aggressive, even toxic, masculinity. Always armed with some sort of phallic symbol, Fermín penetrates Cleo, causing her pregnancy, and then draws a gun on her, effectively terminating her pregnancy. In both cases, he neither knows nor cares about the consequences of his actions. His behavior highlights the constant display of masculinity that Cleo, and her employer Sofía (Marina de Tavira), are forced to navigate and survive as both are progressively used and abandoned by the men in their lives.
It is interesting to note that Guerrero was asked directly by Cuarón if he was comfortable with a nude scene. He replied in the affirmative, but found the scene very difficult to do, even though Aparicio was not present during the takes. Their scenes were spliced together afterwards. Tellingly, in the scene after the hotel de paso rendezvous, Cleo wakes up in the small servant’s room that she shares with another criada and takes a shower, but, in contrast to Guerrero’s full frontal, Aparicio’s nudity is limited to her bare shoulders only.
In spite of the foreshadowing of the character’s violent machismo, I still like the nude scene. The nudity is dignified, not demeaning nor overly titillating. When I think about the massive number of viewers of this film, I am pleased that so many have experienced, or will experience, what might be an introduction to what a flaccid and uncircumcised penis looks like, and how it moves. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, and it really shouldn’t be. But given the continued oppressive censorship of what bodies look like, in the name of political, religious, and corporate interests, Guerrero’s nude scene is a triumph in helping normalize nudity.