Story of my life.
Alfonso Cuarón gives an epic, poetic treatment to an intimate story, a memoir of his childhood. This is a small yet profoundly complex tale of class, race and inequality, as it is lived every day by Mexican middle class families and the household help they employ. Thus, it is a story of Mexico.
The film is full of paradox. A quotidian story, poetically told; a small story writ large in which a character in the margins is the protagonist; a calm presence at the center of turmoil.
Instead of making one of the family children the focus of the memoir, the usual coming of age story of a boy (as he did in Y Tu Mamá También), Cuarón takes the unprecedented step of making Cleo, the Mixtec maid who works for this family, not only the focus of the film but the only constant axis of a family that is on the verge of implosion. She is like a force of gravity that keeps the family from spinning out of orbit. Yet for the family, Cleo is both indispensable and peripheral. This off-kilter relationship is a good stand-in for the surreal forms that Mexican inequality can take, which are steeped in racism and classism, going back to a society of castes.
Cuarón presents this relationship as is. This is how things were in 1971, when he was a kid, and this is how they are now. Nothing has changed.
One minute Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is watching a TV comedy show with the entire family. They are all sitting on the sofa, she is on a pillow on the floor, everyone laughing, one of the kids reaching out to hug her, and the next the señora is sending her to fetch chamomile tea for the señor: you are, but you are not, one of us. Towards Cleo, her employer, Sofía (Marina De Tavira), seesaws between imperiousness, sometimes random vindictiveness, and tender empathy. The kids truly love Cleo, but they also use her. It is a completely asymmetrical relationship.
In one of my favorite scenes, as the camera slowly pans through the kids’ bedroom, we hear two sweet voices recite the night prayer. Then they switch to a strange language, and the camera reveals that it is Cleo who is putting young Sofi to bed with a lullaby in her Mixtec tongue. It is Cleo whom the kids see first thing in the morning, Cleo who tucks them in at night. So, not peripheral, but at the heart of these children’s lives.
The house is spacious and overflows with stuff that the family leaves all over the place because Cleo and her friend Adela (Nancy García), the other live-in maid, are always there to pick it up. The maids share a tiny, cramped room on the roof, which is almost taken over by the massive amount of clothes and linens to be ironed. They do everything they are asked, except apparently, for one thing: they conspicuously leave the dog’s turds sprinkled in the garage, a recurrent motif through the film.
However, the story is not told from Cleo’s point of view. It is told by a steady, omniscient gaze which dares imagine her life outside the confines of her work. This is quite subversive, as this fragile domestic-employer relationship hinges on the employers keeping the individuality of “the help” out of mind as much as possible. But Cuarón takes us to the movies with Cleo on a double date with Adela, her boyfriend, and one Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who puts the moves on her, forsaking the movie theater for a hotel room. There, in a scene of shocking intimacy, we see Cleo in bed, staring at Fermín with sweet, yet bemused bewilderment, as he performs, buck naked, a martial arts routine for her. Cleo has a life of her own, which will get immensely complicated because of this interlude. What happens if a domestic worker literally gets a life and a love of her own, when she’s not supposed to have one?
There are four siblings in the movie and Cuarón makes it deliberately unclear whose memory this is. This is original. He has made an autobiographical movie where the protagonist is not him, but the domestic worker who took care of him as a child.
He does not attempt to get in Cleo’s shoes, speak, or think for her, steering clear of the genre that I call poverty porn, in which privileged filmmakers have the audacity to think they can inhabit the hearts and minds of the destitute, to exploitative results (Slumdog Millionaire, Pixote, and Beasts of The Southern Wild come to mind). Unlike these movies, which turn the plight of the poor into self-serving kitsch, Roma is devoid of wishful thinking, but is infused with a rueful tenderness. There is plenty of social commentary in Roma, but the movie is mainly an acknowledgment. A reckoning with the imbalance.
Beware the myth of the noble savage, which, like hell, is paved with good intentions. For a moment I thought that Cleo’s preternatural self-possession, her radiant modesty, her blushing innocence, were about to lean in the direction of overly romanticizing her, but Cuarón tempers any sentimentalism with a sharp focus on the complicated emotions of this lopsided relationship. The texture of her memory, warm and luminous, rings true. That’s how we remember people we are very fond of.
As things stand today, one could take the cynical view and castigate Cuarón for his white privilege, the hobby du jour among self-appointed online social justice warriors. No need. Roma speaks truth to power by acknowledging the awkwardness, the bizarreness, the complex bonds, the confused feelings, the patronizing, the understanding, the exploitation, the unspoken, the perplexing minutiae of this strange cohabitation. But most powerfully, he does so by acknowledging and honoring the love that complicates it. And he does so through art.
Roma is a film about memory itself. In fact, it is memory rendered in film, in infinitely rich detail, in sumptuous black and white (Cuarón did his own gorgeous, impressive cinematography), in loving attention to objects and people and the unique cacophony of Mexico City (the itinerant sweet potato seller, the knife sharpener, the military marching band, the balloon vendor, the morning birds, the barking of dogs, the incessant radio playing, the period pop music soundtrack, the sounds of maids on rooftops hand washing other people’s clothes, the bell of the garbage collector). I could experience this movie with eyes closed and its sounds will have the effect on me that the famous madeleine had on Marcel Proust. The texture of Roma is as close to the texture of memory as I have ever experienced in a film. But then again, I too grew up with Profesor Zovek. It is my childhood.
Roma is named after the Mexico City neighborhood where the action takes place, but the title has an epic resonance. It is a place of legend and also the birthplace of Italian neorealism, and of Federico Fellini, to whom Cuarón pays generous homage in scenes of grand visual absurdity. Roma is a realist movie with a poetic streak. It has a whiff of surreality, and the play between the real and the cinematic creates a wonderful stylistic tension. The one image that although beautiful, seemed forced to me, of a Scandinavian man singing a plaintive song in an improbable night with a forest fire, has echoes of Bergman. I wonder if Cuarón is also acknowledging the directorial hands who raised him in film. I share his nostalgia for the grand movie theaters of our youth. I also suspect that he is revisiting his journey as a director with scenes that are strongly reminiscent and serve as counterpoints to pivotal moments from some of his other movies. The road trip to the beach on Y Tu Mamá También, the birth scene in Children of Men and even a clip of Marooned, which plays like a funky parody of the opening scene of Gravity, which it apparently inspired. Roma is where he and his movies come from.
Through art, Roma touches upon a larger social context. A wonderful scene where the two-bit Mexican Houdini, Profesor Zovek, shows up at the martial arts training field is not just there for the Fellinesque vibe. It hints at the complicity of Televisa (the then Mexican television monopoly), with the government in organizing the violent repression of students. In her sparse conversations with other domestics, Cleo hears of upheavals at their villages, of land grabbings, of eternal injustices. Finally, in the shape of Fermín, who brings Cleo up close to the darker realities of a country where the abuse of power comes all the way from the top and reaches down directly to you.
In an extraordinary scene towards the end, as the family goes on a beach break, Cleo, who does not know how to swim, walks into a rough sea to bring back two of the kids, who have been dragged out by the undertow. The camera remains composed as it follows her walking neck deep into the roiling ocean, her face pounded by the waves, towards the distressed children. I was relieved that the first thing out of their mouths when their mother arrives at the scene was “Cleo saved us”.
This film is dedicated to Liboria Rodríguez, Cuarón’s childhood nanny. Roma is a movie about gratitude. It is a gift to her, a gift to film, and a gift to us.