Alfonso Cuarón's Roma: The Juxtaposition Between Individuality and Collective Memories
It’s quiet inside. Only the sound of running water is heard, complemented with imagery of soap and bubbles—making sure everything is perfect and pristine. Outside, there’s noise everywhere: an evocative memory of one of Mexico City’s central neighbourhoods. It’s everyday life and social unrest in the form of an intimate portrait of an individual life, one that most Mexicans feel they’ve lived in one way or another.
Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity), follows the character of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City during the 1970s. Her troubles and the family’s tribulations are very personal and almost autobiographical for Cuarón. Cleo is based on his own maid when he was a child, Libo. However, as he puts it, he “realised these were wounds that I shared with many people in Mexico. And then I came to the conclusion that they are wounds shared by humanity.” From a father leaving his family, to earthquakes and students killed by social strife and political oppression, everything feels all-to-familiar to the Mexican viewer, as if watching a piece of their own life on screen.
It can’t be denied that, even if written by a man, Roma is about women. It’s clear in Cuarón’s life – and in many lives, particularly Mexican – women were ultimately the force holding things together, even when thoroughly overlooked. In fact, when we first see Antonio, the family father, it’s through extreme close ups: his work leaflets, a cigarette with a mount of ash, his hand on the wheel as he carefully tries to park his car, and mostly the car itself. It’s representative of how unknowable he is, how specifically unreachable and absent. He is all about work, cigars, and a symbol for money and invisible power. And so when he leaves, it is not him that is missed; it is the stability of a “man of the house,” especially in 1970s Mexico. The story then becomes about Sofia, his wife, trying to hold a family together and overcoming her depression.
Cleo is also heavy with references to femininity and strength. Caring, yet resilient. Quiet, yet moving. Intimidated by the world around her, yet unafraid to find her place. Some of her scenes with Fermín, her love interest, are packed with the female experience, particularly that of underprivileged women. He disappears when she tells him that she’s pregnant, and when confronted he calls her a “slut” and threatens to beat her. Again, from small, individual memories we are brought to a collective female memory.
As Cleo’s character is uncovered, we see two sides to her. The maid and servant on the one hand, and the woman and person on the other. The latter is rarely shown in film and television in Latin-American countries, where having a maid is a given for upper-class families. And, by Alfonso Cuarón’s own admission, he had never seen Libo as a woman until he talked to her about this aspect of her life when writing the script. In this sense, Roma was groundbreaking as a representation of domestic workers. Unbelievable as it sounds, its images show that “they are people too.”
A particular scene in which Sofia shouts at Cleo for letting her son listen to a conversation he shouldn’t –even though there was nothing Cleo could’ve done- is too familiar to those who grew up with maids in the house. They’ve seen it happen a thousand times, turning a blind eye—unaware of the deeper social issues therein. In that way, these memories were evoked and something shifted ever so slightly in Mexican culture around domestic workers. Important movements for their rights have arisen since the film came out.
Roma is a very intimate film: the life of a family and their maid who is not-quite-family. However, Cuarón (also cinematographer) knowingly uses camera movements and angles that are usually reserved to war films. In panoramic shots, he follows Cleo around and anticipates her movements as if she were a soldier. It’s a successful strategy. As much as the film feels like a diary, Roma is about the grand scale of pain, movements and memories, both individual and collective.