In what is described as a very personal project, writer and director Alfonso Cuarón reveals the social and political turmoil hidden behind the middle-class exterior of the Roma neighbourhood in 1970s Mexico City. Roma follows Cleo, a much-loved maid of Mixteco heritage serving a large family with four small children. She is quiet and unassuming, loyal to the family she serves, but with a youthful energy revealed through interactions with her friend and fellow housekeeper, Adela.
At first glance, life is chaotic and upbeat. The children provide an incessant backdrop of chatter, making them both charming and infuriating in the unique way only children can achieve. The family dog wreaks havoc, leaping and darting around Cleo as she goes about her daily business in the home. The absence of music, and the black and white aesthetics, gives the scenes a drawn-out and mundane quality. This is life in Mexico City.
Cleo’s movements are dictated by routine, her days revolving around household chores and fixing Doctor Antonio his morning porridge. Her different approaches to waking each child in the morning for school demonstrates a sensitivity to their differing personalities and a deep affection for children who are not her own. Cleo is an intrinsic part of the family, and yet she is often held at arm’s lengths. When she becomes engrossed in the family’s movie night one evening, she is able to pause only briefly before being prompted to make chamomile tea.
This dynamic, however, slowly begins to shift. After the father has an affair and leaves the family behind, the mother is compelled to rely more heavily on Cleo. When life becomes more complicated for Cleo, it seems her work duties may be affected not only by the family’s tragedies, but also her own. Cleo, however, remains stoic as personal and social upheaval unfold around her.
While she is clearly not immune to the events that have transpired, Cleo appears to adopt a kind of detached acceptance, which suggests that she doesn’t expect anything more from life. And why should she? This is a world in which women are routinely let down. Cleo watches as the mother of the family is verbally abused for rejecting an unwanted sexual advance at a big Christmas gathering. She herself is met with disdain and aggression when she attempts to have a difficult conversation with her own love interest. The hardships these women face slowly draw the different generations of family together.
While it is tempting to be saddened by the plight of these women, Roma beautifully portrays intimate moments between vulnerable women. When Cleo is cradled in the grandmother’s arms in a time of crisis, the barriers in age, class and culture are suddenly broken down. In one of the more touching scenes of the film in which Cleo saves two of the children from drowning, the family lie in the sand embracing one another as Cleo confesses to a great personal anguish. This embrace triggers the first and only collapse in Cleo’s composure, and consummates the depth of Cleo’s bond to the family.
Roma documents a highly personal story, but also successfully sustains a social commentary throughout. It is both achingly sad and quietly hopeful.
Roma is in limited release from 14 December. Check your local cinema to see if it’s playing.