A year in the life
Roma, the latest release from Alfonso Cuarón, lulls you into the slow pace of repetitive chores and activities. You begin to wonder if anything is going to happen. Cleo, one of two maids, serves an upper middle-class family with four children. She cleans, takes care of the children, does laundry and helps serve the meals. She is called to hold the dog, every evening, while the father, Antonio, carefully pulls the car into the tight space behind the gates of their house. Sofia, the mother and Teresa, the grandmother, round out the family.
Antonio, the doctor, offers the first excitement with his parking ability. The happy family gathering each evening is the nostalgic core of the film which disintegrates at the film’s midpoint. Crucial to this nostalgia is the emotional attachment that Cleo and the children have for each other. Cleo must be the strong one, even when faced with her own challenges.
The happy family gathering each evening is the nostalgic core of the film which disintegrates at the film’s midpoint.
Cleo meets up with Fermin, a martial-arts-fanatic, on her time off. The film never offers insight to help us understand how she falls in love with this young man who seems unsuitable for a long-term relationship. When Cleo discovers she is pregnant, Sofia and the grandmother help her navigate the medical system. Fermin wants nothing to do with this responsibility and we discover that Antonio has also abandoned Sofia and the family to live with another woman. Sofia, probably drunk, scrapes both sides of the auto attempting to get it into the narrow space. She may have also been pleased to smash up the doctor’s car, since he had chosen another woman.
When Cleo and Teresa shop for a new crib, we are injected into scenes depicting the June, 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, where student protestors were killed by the police. The film does little to explain or introduce the event, so the viewer is left to wonder what is happening. Adding to the confusion is the way it mirrors the previous shooting of pistols at a party the family goes to.
When you consider the film in reverse you begin to understand more of what those long early scenes mean. The film opens with endless scrubbing of the pavers outside the house, where the dog defecates. Cleo is constantly cleaning up this mess and then making the long climb to the roof of the house where she does the laundry. The cleaning is never truly finished before the task starts again; however the mess that can’t be resolved is created by the selfish behavior of the two men who desert them. These men are little more than one dimensional characters that fulfill their bad deeds and exit the space. The little boys need their nanny, but in this film the grown men have no time to be caring in return.
The large car must be replaced by a smaller one that fits the new family reality. The tight fit of the larger car, gives an early clue that the doctor doesn’t fit into this family anymore. The dog must be held so it doesn’t escape, but in return keeps leaving a mess scattered where everyone walks. Cleo, keeps cleaning up after the dog, offering comfort to the children, all while stoically dealing with the gravity of her own situation. She is silenced for most of the film until she speaks her own truth on the beach.
Roma is a tribute to his memory of the woman who cared for him as a boy but it doesn’t really enter her world or give her a voice to tell us what her life is like. We see only the mostly calm surface and hear only brief conversations. If you stick with the film to the end you experience an emotional moment, on the beach huddled with what remains of the family, that offers a brief window into the inner world of Cleo. Then just as quickly the moment is gone and Cleo goes back to being the nanny. As a tribute, I find this odd, since it seems to signify that her inner story must remain hidden behind the job of serving the family emotionally and physically. Unfortunately, Cleo remains an idealized memory rather than a developed character that could have offered us insight. Roma is distributed by Netflix and I watched it on the small screen. I assume the black and white compositions are much more suited to the big screen and recommend seeing it in a theater if you get the chance.
Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language
Roma Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival