The first plane in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma sails across a snatch of sky mirrored in soapy water. The final plane appears as the camera pans skyward just before the credits roll, closing the film with the promise of an opening. It’s in Mexico City in 1971 where Cuarón honours his memories from childhood, about the maid in his family, Libo. Undoubtedly, one of the most unique films on Netflix, Roma is a black and white feature that is both a love letter to Cuarón’s past and also a seething confession of middle-class guilt. But it performs without any narrative consideration, since the story is entirely dependent on his memories as a child and the details of the plot organically took shape as he crafted this film.
In the initial scene, there is a building crescendo of mop water in the driveway of the home lived in by Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic servant, and the family she works for. The scene is a static shot signifying what one is supposed to experience throughout the movie – the shallow water slowly turns darker and dirtier — which is cleverly used as a metaphor for Cleo’s life experiences.
Cleo is a poor woman and being from an indigenous background, she suffers from the intersectionality of double disadvantage. She is entwined in a whirlwind of struggle and tragedy, and yet somehow manages to stay strong as well as hold and keep the family she serves together. This borrows from the fact that many African-American slaves (and specifically Black women) were often forced to keep white families intact for their survival — while suffering from their own inequities being crushed under the injustice of enslavement. Although Cleo is a domestic servant in this, and not really a slave, strong parallels can be drawn between the both. When Sofía uses Cleo as a verbal punching bag to vent frustrations over her crumbling marriage, Cleo is silent, controlling her reaction to avoid creating discomfort for her employer. Given that the film’s sound design is so rich, Cleo’s silence is jarring and gut-wrenching, offering spectators the opportunity to effectively process these recognizable gaps in emotion.
Both suppress their vulnerabilities, but society is not too kind to women without male protectors and they somehow dodge unsolicited concerns and advances by their own family male members. Rejection brings forth further comments, for example, when Sofia refuses physical proximity with a man, he rebukes her by saying, “You’re not even that hot.” One can also see the divisive results of a patriarchal system of labor that assumes all domestic work to be naturally women’s work. Privileged women hire (and oppress) other women to complete their domestic “duties” t, in essence, preventing cross-class female solidarity. Sofía, in many ways, represents the cold, self-serving first-wave feminism that so desperately lacked intersectional solidarity.
Soon after Cleo learns she is pregnant and her boyfriend elopes, she diverts her mind by devoting all her time in taking care of the children in the family she works for, accompanies them to their relative’s place and keeps within her pain and angst. When she finds her boyfriend, she tries to convince him that she is pregnant with his child, he calls her ‘a fucking servant’, and one gets hint of the multilayered oppression that Roma women were victims to in Mexico. Sofia takes her to the doctor for checkup, hopes to build her confidence back In a very symbolic scene, a friend of Cleo makes a toast, “To a beautiful 1971 and your baby’s health”, but the glass from Cleo’s hand and shatters on the ground. In subsequent scenes, there are glimpses of the Corpus Christi Massacre or El Halconazo that was a massacre of student demonstrators during the Mexican Dirty War and where 120 students were killed.
During the hospital sequence, we see the depth to which Cleo has internalised the systematic repression of feelings that emotional labor requires. The unflinching static camera denies us Cleo’s facial expressions as she looks away from doctors attempting to revive her lifeless baby. We do hear Cleo breathe heavily and occasionally whimper in pain, but she says nothing. But There have been quite a few criticisms on how the depiction of a process so intimate is only indicative of the privileged position Cuarón has for himself.
What fascinates one the most was the way the movie engaged with Cleo’s intimate and emotional labor, a framework which allows one to intersectionally critique domestic work and to consider how repressions and silences in the film indict the very nature of domestic work. Unlike “affective” or “reproductive” labor, intimate labor implies a critique of power dynamics related to gender, race and class. Intimate labor is critical to understanding domestic work in Mexico, where it is typically indigenous, darker-skinned women who labor on behalf of phenotypically European, lighter-skinned women. The tonal differences of skin color are exaggerated in grayscale, especially when Cleo and Sofía are positioned side by side.
However, the movie is an illustration of the journal in Alfonso’s life and there are certain idiosyncrasies about the film that do not have any relevance to the plot. One can fairly assume these were parts of Cuarón’s childhood that resonate with him the most, thereby skewing the narrative further. So comes the question that follows all stories plucked from other lives – what happens when you tell an autobiography through the eyes of someone who is, patently, not you? And, in this case, what if that someone was paid to raise you, feed you, and clean your house? Everyone has an answer: Cuarón’s whiteness begets a colonial gaze; Cleo lacks the discursive inner life of a fleshed-out character; Mexican critics love it; Mexican critics do not love it; Indigenous representation is an accomplishment; rich men should not make movies about their former maids.
Roma tackles political context, race, ethnicity, and social class and although it manages to slip into the ethnic menial labor trope through its character Cleo, it does present an artful depiction of the social underclass through beautiful visual metaphors. It has certainly renewed much-needed conversations about domestic workers’ rights in Mexico on a national level. But, as Guy Lodge has rightly noted in The Guardian, “Roma gives a disenfranchised woman a spotlight more than it does a voice”. nothing so intentional as a protagonist in a meticulously executed film can really speak for itself, though we might ask what, in the muted greys of her weary face, we actually want her to say.