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The Masterpiece that is Roma by Alfonso Cuarón

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Roma, the critically acclaimed film by Alfonso Cuarón, takes us on an intimate and extraordinary journey through the daily lives of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico. At the heart of the story is Cleo, the family’s nanny, who becomes the central figure in this beautifully crafted film.

Inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood and dedicated to his nanny Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, Roma delves into the complexities that coexist with everyday life. It explores issues such as racism, classism, political authoritarianism, patriarchy, and the matricentral order of the Latin American home. It pays tribute to the women who lovingly raised other families, despite being confined to societal roles.

Breaking from tradition, Roma was released in selected theaters and on Netflix. Let’s uncover the hidden gems that lie within this remarkable film.

A Summary of the Film

Set between 1970 and 1971 in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, the film portrays the lives of middle-class housewives and their domestic helpers. Cleo and Adela, two indigenous maids, work for Sofia, the head of the household. Cleo is responsible for taking care of the children, while Adela attends to other duties.

Sofia’s family consists of her absent husband Antonio, her mother Teresa, and their four young children. Everything seems perfect on the surface, but tension lurks beneath.

In their free time, Cleo and Adela spend time with their boyfriends, Fermín and Ramón, respectively. Cleo becomes pregnant with Fermín’s child, but when he finds out, he abandons her. However, Sofia and her family offer support, and together they navigate many experiences during Cleo’s pregnancy.

Cleo tracks down Fermín at a paramilitary training camp with the help of Ramón. While observing the training session with other women, Fermín brutally rejects Cleo.

Meanwhile, through a phone call, Antonio informs Sofia that he is leaving. Their son, Toñito, overhears the conversation, but Sofia makes him promise to keep it a secret.

While Teresa and Cleo are at a furniture store, a student demonstration is brutally suppressed by paramilitary forces. Some protesters take refuge in the store and are pursued by the violent officers. Fermín, now a paramilitary member, comes face to face with Cleo but lacks the courage to harm her, so he flees.

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Terrified, Cleo’s water breaks, and Teresa rushes her to the hospital. Sadly, the baby is stillborn. Cleo returns home, and life goes on.

Sofia organizes a weekend trip for herself, her children, and Cleo. During the trip, on a beach day, two of the children are swept away by the current. Despite not knowing how to swim, Cleo enters the water and saves them. Sofia and the other two children embrace them on the shore. Cleo breaks down in tears and confesses that she never wanted her own baby. Sofia and her children comfort her.

Upon returning home, they discover that Antonio has come to collect his belongings. Cleo and Adela prepare to continue their work. Life goes on in Roma.

Analysis of the Film

From the opening shot of a mosaic patio, Cuarón takes us on a visual journey that challenges the traditional storytelling techniques used by major film studios. Roma is a black-and-white cinematographic masterpiece, frequently using panoramic shots with depth of field.

The story unfolds slowly but organically. Cuarón employs parallel shots in certain sequences, creating a counterpoint effect. For example, in the scene where a man sings in the foreground while others try to control a fire in the background.

Additionally, Roma is a self-reflective film that includes references to movies that influenced Cuarón as a director. The neighborhood cinema becomes a meeting place for the characters, blurring the boundaries between cinematic and real-life experiences.

The Sociopolitical Context

Roma is set during a politically charged period in Mexico. On one hand, it portrays the burgeoning spirit of Latin American modernization, represented by the aspirations of the upper-middle class. On the other hand, it highlights the coexistence of traditional pre-Hispanic cultures on the fringes of society. The film also captures the growing social and political tensions that culminated in the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971.

Sofia’s family embodies the signs of social distinction within the upper-middle class. Antonio and Sofia are professionals, with Sofia being a stay-at-home mom. Antonio owns a Galaxy car and frequently travels for work. They have a large family, two maids, pets, and wealthy friends who add prestige to their lives.

Depiction of Patriarchy

Antonio represents the patriarchal and modernizing world. He is the typical distant provider who sees the home as too small for his ambitions. Antonio’s character is encapsulated in a scene where he struggles to fit his brand new car into the parking space. He wants to portray himself as a prosperous, modern, and free man. His expectations exceed the modest everyday life of the Roma family.

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The representation of patriarchy extends to characters like Fermín, Ramón, and the paramilitary group Los Halcones. Fermín displays physical strength while symbolizing crude violence.

Ramón is a carefree young man who fails to engage with his immediate surroundings. The patriarchal order materializes through the violence imposed by the Mexican government, which forcefully imposes its will. This violent order is public-facing.

Unveiling the Matricentral Intimacy

In a household with an absent father, emotionally and physically, a matricentral culture is established, centered around the maternal bond between Cleo and Sofia.

Here, “matricentral” does not refer to a matriarchal system where the mother is the leader and guarantor of order. Instead, it highlights the often unnoticed caretaking role of women in the house. These women silently uphold the family’s well-being and become the economic backbone of the household.

Sofia, like Cleo, is silenced. She endures the progressive abandonment of Antonio, his psychological abuse, his disguised authoritarianism, his physical absence, and the subconscious curbing of her freedom. Initially, Sofia is subservient to another kind of master—the patriarchy, a system that dominates her imagination.

When Sofia realizes she has been abandoned with four children, similar to Cleo during her pregnancy, she recognizes their shared experiences. This realization sparks Sofia’s transformation. She transitions from a benevolent employer to a partner in the universal struggle of women. As an act of defiance against the patriarchy, she crashes Antonio’s car and sells it.

Cleo, the Balancing Force

In the midst of everyday life, Cleo emerges as the unsung hero who holds the family together. She is the sun around which everyone orbits. Two symbolic scenes demonstrate this: Cleo maintaining balance on one foot with her eyes closed during an exercise at the paramilitary training camp, and Antonio showing genuine affection towards Cleo before she goes into labor.

Cleo is a natural teacher of life, much like the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field. She doesn’t lecture or proclaim; she simply shows, silently teaching others how to gracefully navigate the everyday challenges. Roma follows her example, presenting life without judgment or proclamations—just a gentle display of raw authenticity.

In the face of disaster, Sofia, her mother, and children recognize their own contradictions and see Cleo as an equal. Cleo, a socially marginalized woman with no rights or claims, becomes the heart of the family. The emotional journey they undertake moves them from being passive recipients of her services to active participants in a reciprocal love.

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This love also saves Cleo from the guilt she carries every day for not wanting her own baby, a confession she makes after saving the children from drowning, risking her own life.

Just as water cleans the mosaic floor, the ocean cleanses Cleo’s heart, baptizing her in a sense. Cleo emerges from the sea not as a Venus but as a soul purified through confession. She is met with a merciful embrace. Like the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field, this family has no sermons to deliver. They simply share a familial embrace and the words “we love you” – all kneeling together, on the same level, sealing their bond of everyday complicity.

Final Thoughts

Alfonso Cuarón has created a transcendent work of art with Roma. He maintains the complicity of the audience through the film’s beauty and the false expectations that keeps us wondering where it is all heading.

Accustomed as we are to intrigues, accidents, predictable plot twists, and grand dramatic endings, Roma always keeps us anticipating a “disaster” that never comes—or rather, arrives in the form of everyday life, allowing life to continue its course.

The true disaster lies in a fragmented and divided society trapped in inertia. But this disaster and these fractures do not halt life. Cuarón beautifully captures the natural flow of life, blurring it seamlessly with the mundane, where it reigns with an almost staggering authority.

Who is Cleo?

Cleo is inspired by a real person, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who served as Alfonso Cuarón’s nanny during his time in the Roma neighborhood. CNN interviewed the director and delved into his personal reflections on the subject. You can watch the interview here.

About Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón is a film director, screenwriter, and producer born in Mexico City in 1961. He studied at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos at the UNAM. He started his career in Mexico and later expanded his projects internationally.

Alongside Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón is considered one of the greatest Mexican directors of our time. They have all earned prestigious awards, including the Oscar.

Some of Cuarón’s most famous films include:

  • Y tu mamá también, 2001
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004
  • Children of Men, 2006
  • Gravity (Oscar-winner), 2013
  • Roma, 2018

Watch the Film Trailer

If you haven’t yet watched Roma, prepare to be captivated by the film’s trailer found here.

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