We are alone.
To know that Roma is a semi-autobiographical account of writer/director Alfonso Cuarón‘s own childhood growing up in a Mexico City middle class family is to truly understand the weight of personal events opposite public ones. Placing the timeframe as 1970-71 means something for this country with a government takeover of poor village land and the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre’s death toll of around 120 people at the hands of a CIA-trained group of citizen militia coined Los Halcones. But what did those things mean to a child? What did they mean to a maid who used to call one of those villages home? What did it mean to a mother desperately trying to hang onto her sanity after her husband left her and four children behind?
In the grand scheme of things it means nothing. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) says it best when her friend/co-worker Adela (Nancy García García) tells her to visit her mother because their home had just been seized. Her response arrives with pragmatism rather than malice: “What can I do?” It’s a legitimate query because she’s barely staying afloat of her own issues let alone those of her past. Cleo has her employers’ (Marina de Tavira‘s Sofía and Fernando Grediaga as the estranged husband Antonio) house and children to worry about on top of expecting her own child without a father beside her. The world outside the borders of her personal existence is thus too far-removed to let it influence today’s actions. Unless, of course, that world seeps into her own.
What we’re seeing are therefore the struggles of domestic life—it’s frustrations, failings, and uncontrollable consequences. We see a seemingly happy family of which Cleo becomes a member. She’s asked to complete tasks whenever someone puts in a request, but these demands aren’t relayed with any show of superiority. Doing things is her job and when she’s not doing them she’s allowed to sit with the children and enjoy a good laugh at the television. When she must confide that she believes she’s pregnant, Sofía supplies her a hug and an assurance that she’ll help her in any way she can. And it’s never personal when the woman of the house angrily snaps at Cleo. Sofía is facing an uphill battle herself and sometimes directs her futility outwards.
These are two women of different classes and cultures doing what they can to find the strength to move forward with or without the men who’ve decided to abandon them. They’re tossed aside for a younger mistress (Sofía) or the possibility of better prospects (Jorge Antonio Guerrero‘s Fermín believing Cleo’s socio-economical stature is good enough to fool around with but not good enough to envision a future together). They’re putting on a brave face for the children and protecting them from the truth of what’s happened to their father. They’re leaving the city for a reprieve in the country only to be harassed, demeaned, and reminded of their place within the patriarchy. It wouldn’t have been surprising if Cuarón let these two lead a massacre of their own.
Instead he presents a vérité look at this year’s tragedy and misfortune. It’s a visually gorgeous portrait of his past with a loving eye placed upon bookshelves, cars, and the local movie theater to complement the sorrowful one highlighting these important maternal figures from his adolescence. Through that sadness comes a welcome sense of humor too, though. You don’t portray Antonio’s impeccable effort to squeeze his boat of an automobile into their narrowly enclosed driveway before having Sofía aggressively ram it in later with wall debris left behind unless you’re looking for a good empowered chuckle from the audience. Antonio treating the car better than his family with Sofía pretending it’s an extension of his body might be the most overt metaphor in play, but its no less effective.
It’s that type of revenge that keeps things from falling wholesale into depression—moments like Cleo tracking down Fermín at a martial arts training session only to effortlessly hold the master’s yoga pose while everyone else stumbles and falls. Neither woman is going to let herself become a victim. They may not always be able to comfort the other considering their relationship is a transactional one, but you can recognize the understanding they have for the other’s situation when witnessing something going awry. And you begin to know that their unyielding instinct to shield those kids from the harsh realities of the world confronting them comes as a means of proving their knee-jerk yearning to be able to up and leave like the men did isn’t their truth.
Roma in some respects anoints these women as saints who overcame the bad deck God dealt them. It’s selfish too in that Cuarón is commending their efforts to keep the children (him) safe rather than themselves. But isn’t that how we treat heroes? We exalt them for their tireless dedication to altruism. They protect cities and worlds because it’s right and in this context his home was the city. It’s more than merely a climactic moment in the water at high tide, though. It’s Sofía taking Cleo to the hospital, no questions asked. It’s Cleo racing to catch-up with the boys running ahead of their grandmother in the streets. And it’s Sofía’s mother Teresa (Verónica García) putting her wellbeing in danger to keep an unborn child safe.
It’s a love letter to mothers when all is said and done: biological and otherwise. And it succeeds in large part due to a stunning debut performance by Aparicio. Just like those sweeping moments of song against forest fire or silence amongst a crowd of fighters scoffing at their motionless leader, her Cleo provides chaotic scenes with a calming presence. She moves from shy modesty to relieved appreciation throughout once those she trusts put her at ease and then instantly turns around to be that person for those in a similarly precarious predicament. She imbues her character with an inspirational sense of purpose for which we can’t help but want things to turn out okay. While life is rarely so forgiving, it’s often enough for hope to prevail.
courtesy of Netflix