The Favourite and Roma are two of the most acclaimed and awarded films of 2019. They tied for the most Academy Award nominations this year (10 each) and are widely expected to pick up at least a few Oscars when the ceremony airs February 24.
The films have much in common. Both are directed by non-Americans and feature strong female characters (indeed, the men in each are weak, treacherous, or both). Both are set in the past—Roma in 1970s Mexico City, The Favourite in 1700s England—and yet engage timely questions about today’s world.
Both are interested in class dynamics and the dangers of sex when it is self-centered and divorced from covenantal relationships (perhaps manifesting a latent anxiety in our sexually free-but-confused age). Both ponder the dignity of humanity, the nature of power, and what makes us different (if we are) from animals. The films land in different places on that question, however, and their contrasts reveal a conversation Christians would do well to consider.
The Favourite: Darwinian Survival
Directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is an absurd, irreverent, iconoclastic take on Queen Anne in 18th-century Britain. Largely unconcerned with historical accuracy, the film presents a lesbian love triangle in which two cousins (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) compete for the favor (and bedroom invitations) of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). It’s a sexually perverse and needlessly provocative film that I do not recommend. But given its popularity and likelihood of winning at least a couple Oscars, it’s worth considering The Favourite’s troubling view of the world.
The Favourite is all about power: Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest power. It presents a world where people will do anything and sacrifice any conviction to curry favor with the person in charge. In this case that person (Queen Anne) is a temperamental, unpredictable leader whose ignorance/apathy about government policy means her court advisers run the show. Whoever has the Queen’s ear (and trust) has the power to start or stop wars, among other things; hence the brutal and pathetic battles for court access and the Queen’s favor.
The Favourite is all about power: Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest power. It presents a world where people will do anything and sacrifice any conviction to curry favor with the person in charge.
These dynamics, along with the wild instability of it all—“favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time,” one character observes—present clear echoes and a pointed critique of today’s politics. In our cutthroat power battles and desire to win at all costs, are we becoming less human? In our dehumanizing rhetoric (presidents who call women “dogs” on Twitter, for example) and callous disregard for inherent human dignity (whether in abortion, racism, sexual abuse, or other evils), are we becoming more like animals than humans, with survival as our only ambition?
The comparison of humans to animals is a major motif in The Favourite, as it is in Lanthimos’ other films (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). In The Favourite, the point is underscored in a bizarre duck-racing sequence and especially in the film’s final shot, which compares humans to rabbits scurrying around on the floor, competing for crumbs. Everything human is reduced to animalistic survival in The Favourite. Ostensibly kind gestures are just manipulation. Sex is a meaningless power play. Perhaps most egregiously, the sacrament of marriage is reduced to mere alliance for upward mobility.
An aristocrat’s observation that “a man’s dignity is the one thing that holds him back from running amok” plays for laughs in The Favourite because all the main characters—however elegantly they talk or dress—have long since abandoned dignity. They are running amok, devoid of human conscience and really no different from the ducks, rabbits, birds, and other beasts that populate the film.
Roma: Exalting the Humble
The Favourite is full of vibrant colors, opulent sets, lush costumes, blood oranges, tea cakes, and a world of sensory delights. But none of it is beautiful, because all of it is instrumentalized, fodder for the feuds and power dynamics at play. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, on the other hand, is a black-and-white film that’s nonetheless far more colorful and beautiful than The Favourite.
Consider something that shows up in both movies: a character washing a dirty floor. In The Favourite, this scene symbolizes the working-class drudgery Abigail (Emma Stone) wants to avoid at all costs. In Roma, the act of washing a floor is foregrounded as a thing of beauty and dignity. In a remarkable opening-credits sequence, housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) washes the tiled floor of her employer’s garage, but all we see for four minutes is a close-up of the floor: the geometric order of its diamond-shaped tiles interacting with the sudsy shape-shifting of water and its glistening reflections. It’s a thing of beauty, and the audience is invited to regard it with the care and patience Cleo herself does.
This is how Roma sees the world. It pays attention to the overlooked, the lowly, the humble—the things a utilitarian, power-obsessed world disregards or merely uses. In stark contrast to the grotesque opulence on display in The Favourite, Roma relishes the humble beauty of the small and oft-unnoticed. It doesn’t just tolerate people on the margins and the quiet work they do; it esteems them and dignifies their work. It exalts the humble. In this way the film echoes how Jesus interacted with people, often spending time with and dignifying the outcasts, the marginalized, society’s lowly and disregarded.
By focusing on Cleo and noticing the many quiet ways she orders the home and loves its inhabitants—largely thankless and unnoticed by the family she serves—Cuarón’s attentive cameras impart to her a powerful dignity and status. She is the center of the film, a living illustration of the upside-down kingdom we see in the New Testament, as in Matthew 23:12 (“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”) or 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”).
Roma celebrates and esteems what society demeans and discards. We see this not only in how the film celebrates Cleo, but also in how it celebrates the preciousness of society’s most vulnerable and oft-discarded: unborn children.
When the man who gets Cleo pregnant promptly abandons her and the unborn child, the already vulnerable Cleo is left even more vulnerable. Will she quit her job? Can she earn enough to support a baby? The wisdom of our modern world, where power is pitched as the “right to choose,” would suggest Cleo should just abort the baby. But she doesn’t. She carries her child to full term, knowing it will face tough odds. In a climactic and harrowing scene surrounding the baby’s birth, Cuarón forces the audience to attend to the precious dignity, and yet fragility, of human life. In a Nietzschean, barbaric world where the right to abortion at any time, for any reason, is increasingly defended by supposedly advanced societies, the pro-life ethos of Roma is radical and chastening.
The Favourite is about brute, animalistic survival in a dog-eat-dog world. Roma is, in a sense, also about survival, but in a far more human sense.
The women of Roma survive not by taking revenge on their absentee men or by destroying one another in a zero-sum competition (as in The Favourite). Rather ironically, they survive because they don’t only look out for themselves. This is especially true for Cleo, who models Christ-like sacrifice and service throughout the film. She pours herself out for the family she serves, giving of herself to the point of nearly sacrificing her life. Whereas the characters in The Favourite maneuver and scheme to achieve a status where servants will attend to their every need, Cleo in Roma reflects the posture of Christ, who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Whereas the characters in The Favourite maneuver and scheme to achieve a status where servants will attend to their every need, Cleo in Roma reflects the posture of Christ, who ‘came not to be served, but to serve’ (Mark 10:45).
The radical self-denial and service of Cleo in Roma, like the feet-washing posture of Jesus (John 13:1–17), provides a picture of power in vivid contrast to that in The Favourite. The latter captures power as pre- and post-Christian societies construe it: self-interest, self-preservation, winner take all, only the strong survive. The former presents power through weakness, through self-denial and sacrificial love.
By presenting these two contrasting visions, The Favourite and Roma reveal a tension in today’s world. On one hand is the secular, naturalistic, Darwinian/Nietzschean vision, which sees humans as merely advanced animals who must look out for their own best interests. On the other hand is the Christian vision, which sees humans as image bearers of God who find life by losing it (Matt. 10:39). The tension is so present today that many Christians are seduced by the secular vision, tempted to dehumanize ideological opponents and make unwise alliances in the name of preserving power.
But is that what we want to be? Is the fickle favor of this world’s leaders—favor like a shifting breeze—really where power is found? That “power” is weak and fleeting. The power of the cross, on the other hand, is eternal. God’s favor to us in Christ is what matters. Foolish in the eyes of the world? Yes (1 Cor. 1:18). But we’d be foolish to trade it for anything.