Written by Jennifer Dong.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
A modest and poignant portrait of the human experience rendered through inequality, nostalgia, and love, Roma has established itself as one of the best films of 2018. As the winner of the best foreign language film at the Oscars, the narrative is centered on Cleo Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for a
middle-class family in Mexico during the 1970s, and her experiences working for the family while grappling with crises in her own life. The film’s intention seems to be twofold: it feels like a tenderly crafted homage to a homeland, but it also sheds light on palpable class differences by criticizing the unspoken, often-complicated relationship between domestic workers and the families they work for. With sensitive direction from Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón and a breakthrough performance by newcomer Aparicio, the film gracefully demonstrates that when everything else is lost, human connection and the ones we love are truly all that matters.
The world of Roma is lived-in and understated, diverting attention to intimate scenes of Cleo washing floors alone or ones of raw emotion, which lets the film speak for itself. While watching it, I found myself disappearing into the black-and-white world of Mexico City. I could almost feel the summer air in my lungs, taste the sea salt by the ocean, and hear dogs barking, the bustle of streets, the slapping sound of feet on sun-washed cement from miles away. These details may seem trivial compared to the subtle yet powerful social commentary regarding the poor treatment of domestic workers that still occurs today, but they show how seamlessly the movie—irrespective of the bounds of time—punctures the fourth wall and
implicates the spectator in the events that occur.
One scene in particular is representative of this serene storytelling that never veers toward either saccharine or clinical territory. The matriarch of the family (Marina de Tavira) has just revealed to her young children that she and their father (Fernando Grediaga) have separated, and that they will be taking a trip to the beach while he collects his belongings from the house. In an equally devastating moment, Cleo gives birth to a stillborn baby after undergoing the excruciating pain of labor and being abandoned by the child’s father, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). A cloud of confusion and grief overcomes Cleo as she weeps in the hospital and holds the body of her baby for the first and last time. Amid violent protests in the streets, upheaval, and hopes extinguished by reality, the beach trip at first blush seems like a futile effort to somehow offer reprieve to all of the characters.
On their last day, the children beg their mother for permission to play at the beach once more. She refuses, as Cleo cannot supervise them because she herself cannot swim. Despite this, the two older children venture off into the depths of the endless sea. Upon realizing the dangerous circumstances, Cleo abruptly gets up and shouts the children’s names. The camera follows Cleo as she walks tentatively but determinedly into the water, completely disregarding the possibility of drowning, the height of the water increasingly engulfing her, and the force of the waves pushing her back furiously. Yet she somehow finds and rescues both of the children, who would otherwise have drowned. Coughing and gasping for air, the three stumble back to the shore before collapsing onto the sand in shock, relief, and exhaustion. The mother races to her children’s safety, and they all tightly embrace and cry on the shore, culminating in a simple yet powerful image of love in the face of loss. The world beyond continues to revolve and progress without so much as a thought, but here, at this moment, the weight of the past and questions of the future mix and collide in one space. Life has stilled to an unexpected halt where the only things that matter are the heartbeats still pounding under skin, the undulating and breathless intakes for air, the reminders of their fierce humanity. Even with the magnitude of events that have just occurred, the scene is quiet and unassuming as the water continues to ebb and flow in the background, brightly illuminated by the sunshine. Cleo risked her life to save the children because she loved them dearly and fiercely almost as her own, and yet, when examining the treatment she received prior to this moment, one cannot help but feel that this unconditional care is somewhat undeserved and overlooked.
These economic and racial tensions are rife throughout the film, such as when the children’s grandmother doesn’t recall Cleo’s name at the hospital as Cleo is about to give birth, the numerous instances when the matriarch harshly demands her to perform tasks, Fermin’s contempt for her lowly status, and the unfavorable conditions Cleo must work in despite her pregnancy. Collectively, these fragments of the movie demonstrate the often inhumane treatment of domestic workers that occurs in spite of proclamations of love from the family. However, the atmosphere feels different as the family and Cleo return home and contemplate all of the events that have just unfolded; the social structures that have divided Cleo from the family in the past have become less prominent as she and the family cling on to each other in their shared loss and human condition. While the film still struggles with reconciling this complex connection, its message reverberates with a searing clarity long after the credits roll. Cuarón manages to weave a timeless tale that navigates the specificity of emotions like compassion, tragedy, and joy all while enrapturing viewers with the simple beauty of daily life, and the bonds that can form from the common presence of loneliness. Likewise, just as Cleo earns love and respect from the family, Aparicio gains trust and empathy from the viewers through her performance. As Cleo ascends the stairs to continue her work and disappears into the blinding sunlight, Roma ends on a note of possibility, one that stretches far beyond class, gender, and racial divisions.