I’m pleased to turn this space over to my partner in PageCraft (and life), Carlo Cavagna:
We just saw Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant ROMA, which has us thinking about passive protagonists. Every screenwriting resource (including us, we admit) will teach that protagonists must be active. They must try to solve their problems and become masters of their own fate. No audience will care about a protagonist to whom things just happen. Why is that an interesting story?
Cuarón’s ROMA is enjoying accolades despite a passive heroine, the nanny Cleo. [Spoilers follow] In most of the scenes, she is just trying to fulfill her employers’ wishes to the best of her ability. Things happen to her: she gets pregnant; Fermín (the father-to-be) refuses to have anything to do with her; her employers’ family falls apart.
It’s tempting to look at ROMA’s success and decide the rules are meaningless. Who cares about a three-act structure? It’s so much work putting conflict in every scene! Why not a passive protagonist?
The rules exist for a reason. Usually, when your script isn’t captivating anyone, referring to the rules will help you diagnose the problem. The rules can be broken, but doing so requires careful thought.
It seemed to us that Cuarón knew perfectly well that he had a passive protagonist, but he was determined to tell this very personal story anyway. Further, Cuarón made several intentional and smart choices to overcome the passive protagonist challenge. Three stand out.
First, Cuarón chose an interesting context by setting the story during a tumultuous time, the Mexican Dirty War, which culminates onscreen in the Corpus Christi Massacre. This context touches his characters’ lives, most notably because Fermín is one of the perpetrators of the massacre. Thus the context creates tension. And, the film poses fascinating questions—without offering answers—about social structure and hierarchy, so it keeps the audience busy on the intellectual level.
Second, Cuarón has a deeply observational style. He uses static camerawork and long takes, but the shots are densely composed. There is always something to look at or piece together, even if only in the background.
And third, perhaps most importantly, Cleo is not entirely passive. It’s easy to miss because she is so quiet. But there are a few key moments when she becomes active. She searches for Fermín, to try to get him to face his responsibilities. And of course, at the climax of the film, she saves children from drowning, despite not knowing how to swim herself. The fact that Cleo occasionally takes necessary action, combined with her unshakeable goodness, is why we like her and root for her.
Rules can be broken, but they can’t be ignored. A master filmmaker like Cuarón could set aside one of the most fundamental rules of screenwriting, but he took the risk that his audiences wouldn’t be interested in his heroine. With his other choices, he minimized that risk and made one of the year’s best films.