This piece is not spoiler free.
Going into Roma, the new film by Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón, my expectations were quite high. It wasn’t only because he happened to be my favorite director growing up (and is still my favorite out of the three amigos), but finding out this was his comeback to México made me ecstatic. Call it Mexican pride, but I’ve always preferred the works he made here over his mainstream American ones. I’m afraid my anticipation might have clouded my judgement when I first watched the film, as coming out of the theater, my first instinct was to praise it for its technical achievements. But, there was this uneasiness that I just couldn’t shake, which only grew stronger as the days passed.
This uneasiness made its appearance pretty early during my watch, as soon as I saw the size of the house that served as the film’s backdrop. You see, the film’s promotion was highly focused on it being a depiction of middle class life, yet throughout the story I felt alienated by the privileges the family enjoyed. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones, like the multiple vacations that happen during the film, the cars or the ability to have quite a few service workers. It was also what may seem superficial, such as asking for money to go to the movies, and not only the mother saying yes without hesitation, but forcing the kid to take his siblings and grandma (meaning, more money) with him.
The lack of conflict surrounding money was troubling in itself. Despite the parents getting divorced towards the end, at no time do you sense an actual financial crisis. The mother quickly finds a job, I assume, thanks to her position, selling the house is not mentioned, and although she does sell the car, it comes across as more a spiritual cleansing of sorts since it belonged to her soon-to-be ex-husband. In fact, she replaces it with a new one before even selling it. At no point does this family ever resemble the middle class I grew up in, where one misstep could financially ruin you in a second.
Regardless, I tried my hardest to dismiss these thoughts as projection. But I realized that my biggest dilemma with the film is rooted in this: Cuarón, a white man with a privileged upbringing, was the wrong person to tell this story.
Cléo, played by an exceptional Yalitza Aparicio, represents Cuarón’s own “nana”, and that’s where the problem begins. He portrays her as this two-dimensional, saint-like creature that the world is out to get. He attempts to add depth to her character by showing her interactions outside of work, but their only purpose is to find more ways to make her life miserable.
Cuarón also had the chance to showcase something revolutionary in Mexican cinema: a romance involving two indigenous people that’s sweet and abundant with joy. But this is quickly crushed when Cléo gets pregnant and Fermín, who she had been dating for a while, turns distant and refuses to take responsibility for her and the baby, even threatening her if she so much dares to mention that he’s the father. Yet, the worst part of this subplot is its resolution, where it’s revealed that Fermín is one of the many paramilitaries involved in the Corpus Christi Massacre. This is revealed in a scene that becomes more ridiculous and, frankly, uncalled for in a film that so far had been fairly apolitical. The set-piece that accompanies it is breathtaking, though.
It doesn’t end there either. After finding out the father of her child is a murderer by having him literally point a gun at her head, the shock forces Cléo’s to go into labor. What follows is an acting showcase that should make Aparicio a household name in which her baby is stillborn, which was undeniably provoked by the stress she endured.
Still, Cuarón decides Cléo’s hardships are not over. She has to prove her loyalty for the family, her employers, by risking her life in a moment that has been described as the heart of the film by many, but only caused me to feel bitterly disturbed. Cléo, left alone to take care of the two older siblings while they play on the beach, warns them not to go too deep into the water since she doesn’t know how to swim. They opt to disobey her, which forces Cléo to almost drown trying to save them. The scene ends with the whole family embracing her and showing their gratitude, before Cléo remorsefully admits that she wanted her baby to die.
It’s unclear what Cuarón is trying to say here. If his purpose was to show that Cléo belongs to their family now, he’s being blinded by his own idealistic sentimentalism. I’m inclined towards the other option, where his own guilt drives him to expose how much service workers have to give to prove their worth. Nonetheless, this reading is problematic as well, as it reeks of condescension. Indigenous women are aware of how bad it is. They know they are the less protected people in México. They don’t fall for the pretense that they’re part of their bosses’ family, but instead, they’re stuck being a second-class member as long as they’re required, or are able to fulfill their duties.
However, despite all of this, the moment that has stayed with me more than anything I’ve mentioned so far is the one in the middle of the film, where Cléo attends a town party with an old friend. Even at this party she’s not allowed to enjoy herself, as moments after sitting down to have a drink someone collides into her, effectively ruining her night. It may seem insignificant, but it speaks to the larger issue regarding the film and its treatment of Cléo that borders on sadism.
As a tribute to Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, the real Cléo, the film fails her in every way, being instead an opportunity for Cuarón to atone for his faults regarding class and race. Celebrating Libo is an after-thought. I was stricken by a exchange in an interview for Variety where Libo talks about how the movie came to be: “He was getting all this information without me knowing what it was for, […] ‘How do you remember this, Libo?’ he said. ‘Help me remember and understand.’ Then it started to become weird. ‘Libo, what did you used to wear? How did you dress?’ Things like that. I never imagined everything I’m living right now, that a film would be based on me.”
Ultimately, Roma follows in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema tradition of romanticizing the working class, conceiving them as martyrs and vessels for a message, portraying their struggles as just another facet of life, instead of a systematic class and race issue (think of Nosotros Los Pobres, or frankly, most of Pedro Infante’s filmography). I don’t think there’s better proof of this than the very ending of the film, which implies that Cléo has made peace with her place in society, no matter how unfair it is.
We live in an era full of introspective and forward-thinking Mexican films, from The Eternal Feminine, to Tamara and the Ladybug and The Night Guard. Their reckoning of race, class and power dynamics may be subtler, but the respect they have for their subjects is enough to make them effective in all the ways Roma isn’t. Why then have we decided to highlight a movie that seems so stuck in the past?
This piece was written by guest writer Jay Avila.