Roma, Alfonso Cuarón Participant Media, 2018
At its core, Roma is a meditation on two types of love, the authentic and the inauthentic, which are ultimately intertwined. Cleo is a young maid for a wealthy family in Mexico City. She has no obvious aspirations in life; she seemingly only wants to survive and be happy. On the surface, her relationship with the family is as their servant. She is to be seen and not heard. However, as times passes, more layers develop with and are revealed about their relationship. Cleo’s self-awareness is linked to her surrogate family, which makes for an inequitable, but symbiotic liaison. Love, however, isn’t just illustrated in the characters’ connections, but also in the care the director takes in caressing certain images and summoning us into the world of his childhood.
By filming in black and white, Alfonso Cuarón lends authenticity to Roma as a period piece. The look of the film carries us back to the early 1970s with a nostalgic lens that makes the viewer feel as if they’re seeing through the eyes of Cuarón as a child, cementing the semi-autobiographical angle. There’s a purity to what we’re allowed to see, even during the most dire and violent of circumstances. Since a lot of films in the 60s and early 70s were in black and white, it makes it seem like the film could have been shot then. So, instead of just carrying the viewer back in time, Cuarón delivers us front and center into tumultuous 1970s Mexico City. The soft black and white also gives the film a dreamlike quality, as if we’re drifting on the wave of Cuarón’s memories, riding them out until we reach the crest.
Mexico’s harsh caste system is put in a stark light as the story unfolds. Cleo, played by the entrancing Yalitza Aparicio, is a young woman who loves the children in her care. Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi aren’t just her wards, she cares for them as if they’re her own children. In return, she’s often treated about as well as Borras, the family dog. Caressed and clutched onto in times of distress, ignored when not needed. Cleo’s relationship with the children’s mother, Mistress Sofia, played with a quirky irascibility by Marina de Tavira, is a complex one that’s not unconditional. One minute, Sofia’s inviting Cleo to watch movies with the family, the next she’s yelling at her to pick up dog poop, the most demeaning of tasks. The disparity doesn’t only exist between Cleo and the family, though, but is also evident between her and other maids and with her lover, Fermín.
When the family, without their father Antonio, travels to the countryside to visit Sofia’s family, the nanny there seems intent on having Cleo drink alcohol, even though she’s pregnant. In so doing, the nanny seems to be putting Cleo in her “place.” Cleo’s relationship with Fermín harshly reinforces her station in life and makes her realize how truly alone in the world she is. His naked martial arts routine is pure machismo and gives us a glimpse of his hard, solipsistic personality. When she visits him at his martial arts training camp, it’s clear he has an agenda in life that never included her. This scene illustrates not only the character’s callousness, but the deeply entrenched misogyny and chauvinism in Latin American culture.
Other elements that make this film seem authentic are the realistic cast and stellar writing. Instead of letting it devolve into stereotypes, the story is buoyed by organic actors and dialogue. Yalitza Aparicio isn’t a conventional beauty, but the landscapes of her face, creased with sorrow, pain, joy and hope, connect to form a mask of beauty that reflects the human experience. Her indigenous features are in sharp contrast to her employers’, who are very fair-skinned and European in appearance, a trait common in Latin American and African-American cultures, as well as in the African Diaspora. Often, the affluent are lighter in complexion, mirroring their European colonizers’ beauty and societal values. Dialogue and silence are used like poetry, enhancing the lyrical flow of the film.
Roma opens with a close-up of Cleo’s stagnant mop water on the tiles of the courtyard and ends with thrashing waves at the beach. This symbolizes her going from being just the family maid to experiencing a spiritual cleansing personally and with the family. When she saves the two children, it absolves her of the guilt about her feelings about her still-born daughter. While the title of the film alludes to the Colonia Roma district of the city, Roma spelled backwards is “amor,” which is Spanish for love, the heart of the story. By the end of the movie, Sofia and Cleo bond on a new level because of their shared bad relationships with men, a universal experience. They realize they have a shared grievance that over-shadows any class difference. Cleo’s new-found self-awareness and inner-growth have prepared her for whatever may come in life and she’s accepted the kind of love she has in her life. It’s as permanent and as fleeting as the passing clouds in the sky.
Sonya Alexander is a freelance entertainment journalist, academic writer and screenwriter who began her career as a talent agent-in-training. Medha Singh is Music Editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Send her your reviews at: music [at] queenmobs [dot] com