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Those who say that the personal is the political are wrong, but the error is understandable, and it’s probably better to make the equation than deny the connection.

Many years ago the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt wrote, not to deny the distinction between the literary and the non-literary, but to affirm that “the literary and the non-literary circulate inseparably.” So too with the personal and the political. In our moment, which finds it virtuous to bring every personal experience to be judged at the bar of politics, it’s good to be reminded that life doesn’t work that way and (Deo volente) never will. In our actual experience the personal often displaces the political, only for the political to loom unexpectedly into view, dominate the scene for a while, and then retreat into the background again. We experience the ceaseless circulation of the political and the personal.

If you are not convinced, then I would ask you to watch Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. I would ask you to watch it anyway — after preparing yourself emotionally — because it’s simply a masterpiece, one of the great films of our time and probably of any time. There is nothing about it that’s not masterful, from the composition, lighting, and movement of the camera, to the pacing, to the narrative structure, to the acting — it beggars belief that Yalitza Aparicio had never acted before. Iris Murdoch once wrote of the Gospels that “they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” That’s how I felt watching Roma.

But right now I just want to talk about the film’s approach to politics: the politics of family, of labor, of race — all of them play a role and all of them circulate inseparably with the manifold loves that touch, and sometimes fail truly to touch, our hearts. The whole film is a masterclass by Cuarón in artistic unveiling, in the opening-up of worlds of human experience so as to deepen and enrich and trouble the viewer’s moral and emotional life without ever once descending to preaching.

You cannot watch the film, I believe, without being convinced that Cleo loves the family she works for and that they love her. You also cannot avoid seeing the very specific ways in which that love, on both sides, is shaped and circumscribed by the nature of paid labor, by social class, by race, by language (Cleo’s first language is Mixtec), and even by the urban/rural cultural divide. (For some of the details, see this essay by Miguel Salazar.) Love is love, it really is. But politics exerts pressure on it. The circulation is endless, and like the circulation of our blood, has a systolic/diastolic rhythm. How Cuarón captures that rhythm so vividly and so compellingly, without even an instant of pedagogical leading of the viewer, is beyond me. But then, that’s what an artistic masterpiece always is: something beyond us. And right there with us at the same time.