Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón honored his memories and his childhood in the captivating story Roma. A unique film for Netflix, Roma is a black and white foreign feature with subtitles and no known cast members. Cuarón created a love letter to his past in Roma, and did this without any narrative consideration — the story solely is based on his memories of a child growing up in 1970s Mexico City and the details of the plot organically took shape as he crafted together this film.
Roma opens with a building crescendo of mop water that forms in the driveway of the home lived in by Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic servant, and the family she works for. Cuarón maintains a static shot on this scene during the opening credits and is obviously using this as moment of significance to what we are about to experience. The water starts as shallow and slowly becomes deeper, darker and dirtier — which can translate as a metaphor for Cleo’s life experiences throughout this film.
Cleo is a woman from a social class of poverty and from an indigenous background. She is suffering from a social disadvantage. The story of Roma explicitly depicts how ethnicity plays a role in how Cleo is marginalized. Although the family Cleo works for is also Mexican, they are of European descent. Cleo encounters a whirlwind of struggle and tragedy in her story, and yet somehow manages to stay strong as well as hold and keep the family she serves together in the process. This is reminiscent of how many of my own ancestors of African-American slaves (and specifically Black women) were forced to keep white families intact — while suffering from their own inequities being crushed under the injustice of enslavement. And although Cleo is a domestic servant, and not a slave, the narrative still has very strong parallels.
She doesn’t have much agency or a life of her own, she’s doesn’t have a sophisticated educational background, and also comes across a very insecure. “Cleo is a representation of the world at large”, says director Alfonso Cuarón at a Q&A screening of the film by Netflix in New York City.
The story was an illustration of the journal in Alfonso’s life and there are certain idiosyncrasies about the film that doesn’t have much relevance to the plot. One can only assume these were parts of Alfonso’s childhood that resonate with him the most and he decided to insert them into the story. One example, is the recurring shots of the family driveway inundated with dog feces. The family dog somehow or another is not taken out for walks and forced to urinate and defecate in the family garage/driveway. This also leads back to the opening scene of the dirty mop water that builds up in the driveway. It’s not quite clear what the connection is with these moments of the film, the director leaves that up to the viewer to interpret for themselves — however, I can only assume these were remnants of his past that still stick with him today.
During the Q&A screening, Alfonso Cuarón also stated that “theatrical [distribution] can be a gentrified experience, and there needs to be more diversity on the big screen.” And yes, he is absolutely right about that statement, but one has to ponder based on Cuarón’s body of work is he speaking of only Mexican films or diversity as a whole?
While Roma is getting rave reviews, being praised highly as this worldly art film, and is under serious consideration for a Best Picture nomination — I do have some issues with the film. Netflix is doing a fantastic job screening this in theaters because a film like this does deserve to be on the big screen. However, I am concerned that the Netflix audience may not embrace this film as quickly as film critics have. The pacing is slow and the film is quite long with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. The domestic worker narrative is yet again a story I feel is one of the most overrated and overused stories in Hollywood. These stories always get the attention of awards shows and the sacrificial servant trope (it has also been referred to as the sacrificial negro trope) always plays well to white audiences.
Without giving too much away, Cleo’s story is pretty tragic and it doesn’t get any better for the protagonist as the film progresses. The white Mexican family is secured, rescued and protected by Cleo and she is their comforter. While Cleo is barely able to hold herself together, suffering from her own personal misfortunes, she is forced to be strong for the family she works for. It’s also unnerving at times when the family is aware of her calamity, and still expect her to keep working and fetching things for them without any compassion.
I do respect and appreciate that a film like Roma is told solely through the perspective of a woman of color. The fact that it is getting worldwide attention, can be the window for more films to be told through women of color as lead protagonists.
First time actor Yalitza Aparicio carries this film beautifully and its shocking that she has never performed professionally before. I hope that this is not the last for her and that she begins a solid career as an actor. Yalitza mentioned during a Q&A screening for Roma about the challenges of being on set.
“The greatest difficulty was being on set and pretending people weren’t there.” She also added about how important a film like Roma is for her community. “For people in my community, we don’t have the means to travel to the capital to see it in a theater. Films like this don’t stay in the theater very long and young people don’t always have access”.
This was obviously an important film for Yalitza herself to be a part of.
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.
Roma is currently screening in select theaters and will be released globally on Netflix December 14, 2018.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critic Association