Roma Examines The Societal Barriers That Separate Women and What Can Unite Them

************************This review contains spoilers****************************

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women, we are always alone.”

Roma follows a wealthy family and their nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in 1970s Mexico City as both try to navigate trying times in their respective lives.

While Roma is a film that explores class differences and stratification, the film also delves into the universal struggle that women face across class lines in terms of the burdens they are sometimes forced to carry by both the men in their lives and society at large. The class difference between the characters onscreen stands out immediately. Cleo is a darker skinned woman of indigenous descent who, along with another woman of indigenous descent, serves for a family of European descent headed by a doctor named Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), housewife Sofía (Marina de Tavira), and their four children. The contrast in the two environments is made starker by the fact that Cleo only goes by her given name within the household that she works while colloquially among friends, she is addressed as Manita. For me, this difference spoke to the duality that many African Americans operate under in their lives; a certain persona and way of speaking and operating in the larger world versus how we relate and interact among ourselves. That the darker indigenous women are left to serve at the pleasure of the wealthy who are also descended from Europeans is a depiction of the reality of the western world that becomes social commentary even if that is not what director Alfonso Cuaron intended. The opportunities and access that one is afforded is impacted greatly by the social constraints placed upon those from which the descend and the juxtaposition of the Roma’s characters only reinforces this historical reality. Our socioeconomic backgrounds and the experiences that result from them also inform our personalities and through its story, Roma displays this reality as well.

Both women at the center of the film, Cleo and Sofía, must deal with the pain and disappointment resulting from their mistreatment by the men in their lives. As the film moves along, we are subtly shown through hints in dialogue and overheard conversations from Sofía that Antonio has abandoned his family to abscond with his mistress. Sofía understandably takes this news very hard, at first using her children to try to guilt Antonio into returning, going out and getting drunk one night, before finally coming to accept the dissolution of their marriage. Along the way, she lashes out at Cleo when Cleo is unable to prevent her oldest son from overhearing her phone conversation outlining Antonio’s abandonment of the family. Sofía’s tough time in the ending of her marriage is juxtaposed with Cleo’s tough time in her own relationship with her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Upon taking her virginity, Fermín gets Cleo pregnant and abandons her upon finding out. Cleo is now left alone, a poor nanny with a child on the way which she will have to raise alone. Cleo dreads having to tell her employer, fearful that she may be fired upon delivering the news. To Sofía’s credit, she is extremely supportive of Cleo upon being told, using her husband’s connections in the medical field to link Cleo to a doctor for care and keeping her on as the family’s nanny through her pregnancy. Despite this good news, things don’t end well for Cleo and the baby who arrives stillborn after Cleo is thrust into labor following being witness to a murder committed by Fermín during student protests in Mexico City. This scene is one of the most intense scenes in a film this year, shot with the camera at Cleo’s side as she helplessly glances over at doctors trying save her baby immediately after giving birth. Throughout all of these trials and tribulations, Cleo handles herself with strength, dignity, and composure; never missing a day of work and remaining on the clock for the family she serves and never bringing her personal troubles to the job. I couldn’t help but attribute this strength in the face of adversity to the very adverse conditions that Cleo had become accustomed to as a member of the working class, particularly in comparison to Sofía who handles her own marital problems in a little more bumpy manner. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are used to having to navigate and deal with the random pitfalls thrown at them by life more often than their more well-off peers. Cleo and Sofía’s stories within Roma encapsulate this truth succinctly and effectively.

Despite the differences in how the women handle their respective hardships, the fact that they experience them together brings Cleo closer together with the family. Cleo’s devotion to Sofía and her children becomes clear to the matriarch when Cleo sacrifices her life to save their daughter Sofi (Daniela Demesa) from drowning under an ocean current despite her own inability to swim. The scene following Cleo’s saving of Sofi allowed all parties involved to release all of the pain and worry from which they had suffered in a moment of catharsis and healing together. It was in this moment that they realized they loved each other and despite her not being blood, that Cleo was like family, their shared pain creating a new bond. Director Alfonso Cuaron marks this transition for Cleo visually in the film’s opening and closing shots. The movie begins with a long shot of the sky reflected in a pool of water on the garage floor as Cleo does her mopping. The suds and water splash around while she works and an airplane slowly flies by atop the buildings surrounding her employers’ home. The film’s final shot features Cleo walking up the stairs to her apartment next door to the home, ending on a shot of the same sky as another airplane slowly flies by. This same shot but from different vantage points mirrors how Cleo has transitioned from just the housekeeper doing her job as an employee, to an ascended place in the family’s lives, and how she has also grown into a stronger woman. This outcome seems all the more relevant in today’s moment where women bonding together across racial and class lines to overcome odds placed at their feet by men is a topic of great concern. Roma displays what can happen when two women from disparate backgrounds support each other through their struggles and forge a connection that helps the other get through the tough times they’re facing.

Roma is impeccably directed by the great Alfonso Cuaron of Children of Men and Gravity fame. His use of black and white photography gives the film a polished look and feel and he supplies Roma with some incredible camera work resulting in equally incredible shots. The stillbirth scene being shot as if the viewer is lying beside Cleo and experiencing the tragedy of a lost newborn alongside her was a masterful directorial choice that displays why Cuaron’s reputation is well earned. The ensemble cast plays each role well and believably with Yalitza Aparicio shining her debut role where she is required to carry a prestige film for over two hours. While the movie is packed with relevant and moving social commentary, Roma does move slowly at parts and is more of a character study than one with a traditional, protagonist-antagonist story structure. Still, the film is one that deserves to be seen in theaters if at all possible rather than simply waiting for it to hit home on Netflix.


Image:  Netflix

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About the Author: Garrett

Garrett is the founder of CinemaBabel, a regular guest host on the Movies That Matter podcast, and a lover of film in general. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.