'Roma' is a poignant tale of women coping with loss
Updated: Dec 17, 2018
The first and only Alfonso Cuaron film that I had seen prior to watching Roma was his highly acclaimed sci-fi-drama Gravity. I think I’d be forgiven for saying that I didn’t find the outer space blockbuster all that compelling considering the circumstances that I was forced to consume it under: on a small, low-resolution television as I waited hours to be called for jury duty in a non-cushioned chair. Instinctively, I found myself agitated by its laggard narrative. But I appreciated the mesmerizing cinematography and skillful editing provided by Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki and, of course, Sandra Bullock’s acting.
Conversely, I watched Roma out of my own volition for reasons that had little and everything to do with its auteur. Set in 1970s Mexico, the film centers a young, indigenous woman named Cleo (the phenomenal newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who works as a maid for a middle-class family in the picturesque neighborhood of Roma. The story - beautifully shot in black and white - is based on Cuaron’s upbringing but is told from the perspective of the adults in his life rather than that of a young boy. In contrast to many autobiographical or semi-autobiographical films, Cuaron doesn’t focus on his coming of age but rather the figures in his childhood whose inner lives he neglected to or maybe wasn’t capable of seeing as an adolescent. Stories about working-class women of color are rarely told with this amount of care and prestige. And the real-life Cleo, who nurtured Cuaron, is obviously someone he feels he owes a great debt to.
It may not seem clear at first. But Roma is ultimately a tale about two women whose lives unravel simultaneously. Cleo becomes pregnant by an amateur martial artist Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who abandons her once she tells him the news. And Cleo’s employer Sofia (Marina De Tavira) is grasping for her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) who eventually walks out on their family.
While Sofia is visibly collapsing at the departure of her husband - crying, snapping at Cleo and accidently slapping one of her sons - Cleo remains quiet and stoic throughout most of the film as she prepares to bear a child on her own. At one point, she tracks down Fermin in a remote location where he’s taking an outdoor martial arts class. She approaches him politely and, before asking anything of him, he threatens to beat her and their child if she seeks him out again. Even in that frightening moment, Cleo seemingly lacks emotion. We hardly know anything about Cleo’s origins but she doesn’t seem jarred by the reality that she is essentially alone - as opposed to Sofia who, later in the film, relays the epiphany, “no matter what tell you, we women are always alone.”
The gloom that hangs over these women’s lives, as far as the audience can tell, is largely conceived by selfish men. Cuaron arguably skewers masculinity in a number of ways through his representation of male characters. Fermin is a mancho nightmare whose obsession with displaying physical strength consumes every aspect of his life. In one particularly telling scene, after he’s just been intimate with Cleo, he breaks off a shower rod to perform a lengthy fighting routine for her and, ostensibly, himself. Our introduction to Antonio is similarly menacing but also farcical, as we watch him pull his shiny, luxury vehicle into his home’s driveway. The drawn-out sequence contains shots of his hand shifting gears while a shadow covers his face as the engine roars boorishly. Once he steps out the car, a presumably brooding figure becomes more of an apparition.
Roma’s more climactic scenes occur towards the end of the film and are soul-crushing to say the least. Cuaron provides a satisfying and emotionally fraught finale as we watch a formerly stratified household support and cling onto each other in ways they could have all along. Of course, these moments lend themselves to some much-needed commentary about race and class and what it takes to be seen as human in the eyes of the privileged. Nevertheless, Cuaron paints a masterful portrait of tragedy and loss and the incessant hope that peaks through the cracks of despair.
Ultimately, it's Yalitza Aparicio's portrayal of Cleo that makes Roma worth consuming. She provides an active awareness to an otherwise personality-void character who I've seen many actors get wrong in the past. Minority newcomers to the big screen are rarely afforded the same accolades as their white counterparts, but I sincerely hope this formidable debut is recognized at some point this award season.