We might as well call it a tale of two achingly strong women. What a devastatingly beautiful experience, Roma is! Before your screen is splattered with all the emotions I had while watching the film, let me help you dive into the intensity with which I write this review by giving you a backdrop of the action.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and set in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City (hence, the name of the film), this black and white film, captures instances from the lived experiences of Cuaron as he follows the life of two women – Cleo, the nanny (Yalitza Aparicio) and Sofia, her employer (Marina de Tavira). Cleo is a domestic worker in Sofia’s upper-middle household who dutifully takes care of the household maintenance as well as of Sofia’s four children who like having Cleo around.
As Cleo’s life in the household spans, which is beautifully covered by Cuaron’s closeups and wide shots, Sofia’s marital life is seen getting strained. Antonio, Sofia’s husband, who informs Sofia of leaving for Quebec for a week, decides to never come back, leaving the family with unstable finances. Cleo, in her free time, goes out with a friend where she meets Fermin, their relationship culminating into Cleo’s pregnancy and Fermin’s leaving. Both men leave, never to return.
The differences in class and race, though not verbally mentioned by Cuaron, take on a visual depiction where the upper middle class Sofia has friends, relatives, domestic workers to fall back on; whereas Cleo goes silent.
Men leave, women survive. There’s a scene in the film when trying to park her Galaxy car into the courtyard, Sofia runs to Cleo and screams, “We women are always alone!”, and it is either the power/conviction with which that dialogue is delivered or its relevance even today that provokes the scene to replay in my head every time I think or talk about Roma.
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There is a world of a difference in how the suffering of these two women comes to us. The differences in class and race, though not verbally mentioned by Cuaron, take on a visual depiction where the upper middle class Sofia has friends, relatives, domestic workers to fall back on, whereas Cleo goes silent. When the glass of pulque which Cleo hesitantly agrees to consuming toasted with her baby’s health falls to be broken on the ground, Cleo remains silent. The fact that she is everywhere, watching her employer feel the emptiness, watching Antonio with another woman, witnessing her own life going haywire, but remaining alone and silent says so much about the class and race differences between them.
Sofia is not an employer who would mistreat Cleo and you might think that Cleo’s sitting with the family to watch films, being able to openly inform her employer about her pregnancy without the threat of being fired, the children’s motherly love towards her, would somehow bridge the class difference – but it doesn’t. She remains the domestic worker. The help. The difference isn’t bridged (and cannot be bridged) because Sofia still blames Cleo for mistakes she never committed almost as to show her power over her. It is a scene with which many of us are familiar with – it is always the domestic worker or the women in our family who are rebuked for anyone’s mistake because of their position in the power hierarchy of the family.
“To a beautiful 1971 and the baby’s health!”, with this wish Cleo toasts her new year pulque only to have the cup split broken on the floor. Neither was 1971 beautiful for Mexico nor was Cleo’s baby. Cuaron who made this film in the reminiscences of his childhood, recreates the massacre of Corpus Christi when the military killed around 120 people during a student demonstration. The protest is depicted as happening simultaneously when Cleo is buying a crib – her water breaks and she is, amidst the chaos, taken to the hospital only to give birth to a stillborn baby.
What also intrigued me were the memories that Cuaron chooses to represent on film. The process of selection and rejection of certain memories and not others, the identification of what stayed, how it did and why it did and not something else, informs Cuaron’s endeavour very sharply, adding depth to the experience of this film. It was as much a memory remaking project as it was a film making one. As writers many of us are advised, for effective writing, to not tell but show, and that is precisely what Cuaron does – he doesn’t tell us in words that there are class and racial inequalities but depicts them.
It is always the domestic worker or the women in our family who are rebuked for anyone’s mistake because of their position in the power hierarchy of the family.
So yes, the worlds of Cleo and Sofia might burgeon on Sofia’s insistence to take Cleo for a holiday with the family (while Antonio would take his stuff from the house), but they also stretch too far, almost never meeting. Hence, both of them are engulfed by loneliness differently. Cleo takes resort in her actions towards the family she tenaciously works for, Sofia is struggling to explain to her kids, to herself, the future of their family.
What Cuaron does is to not let any grief be depicted as lesser. He allows both Cleo and Sofia their periods of grief. He allows us to not glorify or vilify anyone’s pain. And this allowance of pain intensifies what the audience feels for the characters, because it is in these moments, we realise that this is how life is. The immersion into work days, the blankly staring at floors and ceilings days, the drunk driving, the holidaying, and many things that we do to pull ourselves up from anything that has split our sense of what we considered a life.
As beautifully and tragically the emotions seep into our screens, causing a weep or two, the aesthetics of the scenes (of which I admit I do not have the technical jargon for), is telling a lot. The opening shot of a soapy floor ending with the reflection of an airplane passing through the window coupled with a similar last shot of the sky bearing the airplane’s movement was for me also a metaphor of movement, of hope, of change in the lives of the housemates.
Likewise, the noisy wedding band which appeared when Antonio was leaving and reappeared when the family came back from a holiday signalling the beginning and also an end, although ambiguous, of the events in between. I say ambiguous because what happens to the lives of Cleo and Sofia is open-ended, leaving the viewers guessing, not in panic, but in satisfaction. These two women if seen getting hurt are also seen mending themselves and each other. My question is are these women then really alone, as Sofia mentioned, if the men were weak enough to leave, dumping their responsibilities for the women to pick?
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Although I wish I could have watched Roma on the big screen because of the cinematic beauty that it is, but with Netflix producing it, it might just be available to a larger audience, and I cannot emphasise enough on the reasons to watch it! Whether it is the performances, especially Aparacio’s whose care and love for the children reminded me of The Help or the aesthetics, or even the sheer absurdity and normalisation of some situations, when, for example, one of children describe how a kid was killed by the army for having thrown water balloons at their jeep and the nonchalant, unalarmed attitude of the rest, it is a win-win from every front. Just keep yourself armed with a pack of tissues before you log into your Netflix to watch the film, though!
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