Roma: The Intimate Snapshot of a Past Childhood

The Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón allows us with Roma a deep gaze into his former family life like through a hole in the wall: We quickly become childlike voyeurs, who see and feel more than we are able to hear. 

Image: Carlos Somonte. Scene of Roma, with Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Marco Graf as Pepe. ©Netflix.

Dogs barking in the neighborhood, the smooth swoosh of a wiper, soapy water flowing through the floor, wet laundry dropping in the light-flooded patio: The familiar intimacy of house cores sounds create the calm spell of Roma, a movie that reconstructs, for a short space of time, the daily life of a middle-class family in the quarter Roma, in Mexico City, in the year 1970. Due to the close, black and white shots of the movie, the audience simply cannot avoid the feeling of being moving in: We just become unintended voyeurs in the private home of this particular family.

This is a family life that just happens, as disorderly and chaotic as it usually is. The house is not duffed, not extraordinarily put in order, nothing is tidied up for visitors: As complete estrangers, we are allowed to look inside the intimacy of this home, and to feel with the mother, the grandmother, the children and the domestic workers of the house. In doing so, we discover an interesting peculiarity: The housemaid, who takes care of the children as well, is the hidden heart of the house, a beloved person in eyes of Cuarón, who comes close to her again in the character of little Pepe, the youngest child of the family. 

As usual in Latin America, the radio runs continuously while the children play and the housemaid takes care of the daily washing, rinsing, wiping, cleaning, and preparing the kids for school. Explicitly and superficially seen, nothing concrete is being told here by now. At first, the daily routine of the house just entrains the characters and the spectators at once. The familiar aspects speak for themselves, the unfamiliar ones bring the linguistic duality of certain Latin American households to light: The servants talk to each other at times in Spanish, at times in their indigenous language, while the youngest boy of the Spanish-speaking family with European roots asks for translation.

Everybody eats together, tells their daily experiences, has to do something in the household; everything follows its usual course: This is the way the children, the grandmother, we -as the audience- and Cleo, the housemaid and nanny, see all what happens in this home. Under the façade of normality, however, a serious marital drama is taking place. The crack in the relationship can be slightly guessed, first through sounds, later through images: The father appears in the scene, he virtually breaks in the life of the family, along with his music and car -both extraneous to the everyday life of the house-, driving impeccably in through a gateway, that is repeatedly soiled with the dogs dirt. He does not seem to belong to this home anymore. 

In contrast with the noncommittal father and the hard conditions of the outside world, which we casually get to see as city chaos, military manifestations, slums, violence, and public insurgency, it becomes increasingly clear, that mother, grandmother, children and housemaid build a nurturing, closely linked unity. Thereby, a second common Latin American duality appears: Cleo is clearly the maid, the servant, the house worker, the nanny that keeps house and children in good condition without pause. But she is also a deeply loved, intimate family member. 

Cleo is rarely alone: At times, she is surrounded by domestic chaos, traffic noise, or ambulant street vendors. The seldom moments in which she seems to be alone, or self-contained, are in return all the more critical. The family members see in her the nanny, the friend, the partner in crime: She is therefore able to deeply understand, without words, the sudden feeling of abandonment that falls on the family. Shortly after, she experiences her very own, personal crisis: She will be as violently abandoned and willfully disregarded as the mother of the house, as well. The world out there seems to be just merciless to the women of this family.

Meanwhile, we unequivocally perceive, as spectators, the suffering that abruptly finds its way into the household, through the subliminal proximity of the black and white shots, and the diverse sounds that are louder than the secretly conducted conversations. As the voyeurs of the house, we perk up our ears, we want to know more, and understand better what is going to happen next. Better and better, we grasp the two parallel stories that let us visualize a well-known drawback of that time: The financial and social disadvantage of Latin American women, independently from their status, as soon as they were abandoned by their men.

The inner conflict of both protagonists, the initial unwillingness to acknowledge deception of the mother (Marina de Tavira), and the sorrowful taciturnity of the maid (Yalitza Aparicio), shape for a while the general atmosphere of the movie, until both regain at last that life-affirming power that copes with the world, whatever happens. The daily life of the family goes on. The social disparities remain, the political conflicts continue, too. But what counts here is the dynamic energy of the house, the personal crisis that these two women overcome as a family, and their belief in a better future.

This work by Alfonso Cuarón seems to be precisely driven by that same imperturbable belief in a better future: The chatty little boy of the family becomes a filmmaker, and pays tribute to the strong women of his childhood with this nostalgic movie. And we, the spectators, stay behind with the feeling of having been part of a warm Mexican home for a short while. Awesome.

Some facts about Alfonso Cuaróns Roma:

Roma’s world premiere took place in Venice International Film Festival on August 30th 2018, where it won the Golden Lion. In the Golden Globe Awards 2019, Roma won in the categories “Best Foreign Language Film” and “Best director”. In the Academy Awards 2019 Roma was nominated in ten categories, getting the Oscars for “Best Foreign Language Film”, “Best Director” and “Best Cinematography”. The movie can be exclusively watched via the streaming service Netflix

Alfonso Cuarón, born in 1961 in Mexico City, is movie director, screenplay writer and producer. He earned recognition with his directing work in the third part of the Harry Potter-Saga (2003) and in the movie Gravity (2013).

Sofia Bartra de Loayza

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