By: Demi Dang
Roma is a movie that evokes life in Mexico City during the early 1970s, a time that was of great social transformation. The film depicts the upheaval that took place in the life of a middle class Mexican family when the father decides to leave the family home. This situation prompts a significant psychological change in the lives of the main characters; especially the mother, who realizes that she is now in charge of the household. From this perspective, one can see how the narrative of the film serves to reinforce the theme of female empowerment. Once the mother, Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, acknowledges the irretrievable breakdown of the family structure, she is able to overcome the feeling of betrayal and to take charge of the household. The film celebrates the passage from a broken patriarchal structure to a wholesome matriarchal arrangement, in which both Sofia and Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, have a significant part to play. The movie links the narrative of brokenness and despair with the social and cultural upheaval that was taking place in Mexico during the early 1970s, as seen in the proliferation of the political demonstrations organized by university students. I think the way Cleo is treated as a background figure is commentary on the treatment of indigenous workers by the middle and upper classes of Mexico. There is some controversy to this film due to the fact that it is telling a story of an indigenous women without an indigenous women’s voice. Yet I actually liked how Alfonso Cuaron handles all of this. It is semi autobiographical after all, an intensely personal film. Alfonso grew up privileged and sheltered and most likely came to realize as he became an adult certain truths and realities about his caretakers and or nannies and their treatment. Since this is clearly a personal film, it would have felt authentic for him to explore this a modern, “woke” lens because that was not how he experienced it.
The film depicts in an eloquent manner the effect that the differences between rich and poor had on the Mexican social space. Cleo is a young woman of indigenous descent, who lives with Sofia’s family, performing all the household tasks and taking care of the children. There is a sense of ontological separation between people of middle class origin and people of poor background that is present throughout the film. This is seen in a palpable manner in the scene at the hacienda, which shows the dispute between the rich landowners and the people of poor background who set the forest on fire. This sense of ontological separation is bridged through the experience of loss. Cleo experiences the sense of loss in a more stoic way, perhaps because of her ethnic and socio-economic background. As a young woman of indigenous origin, she is accustoming to enduring hardship. Nevertheless, her feeling of loss is more profoundly felt. Cleo starts a relationship with Fermin, who lived in the outskirts of Mexico City and turns out to be one of the people that would later on exercise violence against the demonstrators. Fermin rejects Cleo when he finds out that she is pregnant. Later on, Cleo, who admits to not have wanted the baby to be born, delivers a stillborn child. There is, therefore, a feeling of loss that goes on throughout the film.
The transformation that was taking place in the family environment and in Mexican society as a whole appears to sustain the narrative of dispossession that is pervasive throughout the film. This narrative of dispossession also informs the way that they both respond to the challenges that are presented to them. This narrative of dispossession also serves to signpost the transition from childhood to adulthood and from emotional brokenness to emotional maturity.
The evocative portrayal of life in Mexico City in the early 1970s is strengthened by the fact that the film is shot in black and white and with the use of long held shots and wide camera angles, which brings about a sense of detachment yet feeling quite centered while giving a feeling of distance. Tight close ups and and quick cutting be gone, the shots of Cleo waiting for Fermin at the movies and then the cut to her staring out the window to the rain were incredibly personal, aas for many other intimate moments like these throughout the film. It is through this perspective that differences of class and ethnicity are overcome. Loss and dispossession are elements that allow the main protagonists of the film to reach a higher state of emotional maturity and to accept the inevitability of change. The film also manifests the power of redemption that lies in selfless actions. Cleo saves two of the children from being drowned during a trip to the seaside.
This leads to a climactic moment of emotional disclosure, when she confesses to the fact that she did not want to be a mother. That climactic moment creates a point of disjuncture between the past and the future. Cleo’s struggles were very clearly the center of the film and her relationship with the family she is taking care of, where she has to hold herself together amidst the chaos of her life, the emotional core. When Sofia, Cleo and the children go back to Mexico City there is a feeling of normalcy that comes from the unity that had been created during the family’s trip. This is a moment that represents a new beginning and a new sense of confidence for Sofia, Cleo and the children.
Roma, 2018, directed by Alfonso Cuarón,