The first time I watched Roma was in a movie theater with my parents. Unlike them, I wasn’t yet around in the 1970s Mexico of the film, but I do currently live in Mexico City’s La Roma neighborhood, the setting and namesake of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest directorial endeavor. I was mesmerized by how accurately the movie portrays my home country’s past and, in many ways, its present cultural and political landscape. But my favorite part of the experience by far was sneaking peeks at my dad’s face and sensing his excitement as he watched scenes he remembered from his childhood play out in the film’s silky, black-and-white palette.
It’s not often that so-called “foreign” stories get the full Hollywood treatment, or that non-American people are afforded the opportunity to see their lived experiences accurately portrayed on the big screen. In fact, I can’t recall another Spanish-language movie receiving as much international attention as Roma. The film chronicles the mundanities of a Mexican middle-class family’s life — its tragedies and small victories — through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), their live-in maid, who also faces her own tribulations. Cuarón has described the film as semi-autobiographical, dedicating it to Libo Rodríguez, his own childhood housekeeper.
Though reviews of Roma have been overwhelmingly positive (flattering comparisons to the work of Federico Fellini abound), a few critics have proclaimed themselves immune to its charms. In The New Yorker, for instance, Richard Brody bemoans the story’s failure to truly delve into Cleo’s inner life. One paragraph in particular stood out for me. Lamenting an absence of context in one of the movie’s most harrowing scenes, which portrays a student protest turned massacre, he writes, “[…] here, too, [Cuarón] empties the conflict of its ideas. What are the students protesting? What are they advocating? Why do they seem to threaten the regime? […] Cuarón suggests that Mexico was, at the time, at least a semblance of a democracy. But the film doesn’t make clear whether it was actually democratic, whether censorship was stringent, whether ordinary people, such as the family at the center of the film, lived in fear of repression.”
It’s mind-boggling to think that a prominent film critic didn’t once stop to consider that a Mexican film — written and directed by a Mexican — has no obligation to go to great lengths to cater to him, a white American. The scene he finds so frustratingly obscure actually shows a very widely known event in Mexican history, the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre. If Cuarón doesn’t offer up the answers to Brody’s questions, it’s probably because Roma’s intention isn’t to instruct anyone on the sociopolitical realities of 1970s Mexico. Shocking as it may be, this movie exists outside of the American gaze.
I can’t help but feel a bit amused by how baffling the lack of context may be to some moviegoers. To me, assuming an audience’s prior knowledge of Mexican culture and major events is a powerful way of centering the Mexican experience. That Cuarón never pauses to explain any reference seems like an act of defiance on his part. His work has long been embraced by the foreign press, but Roma doesn’t exactly seem to be after its acclaim. By touching subtly upon subjects central to Mexico, it establishes an intimate dialogue between the author and his compatriots.
But back to Cleo, the film’s main character. It’s true that she rarely speaks more than a few words at a time, except to her friend and fellow maid, Adela (played by Nancy García). Cuarón offers little insight into her past, her own family, or her indigenous culture. The relationship between Cleo and her employers is uncomfortable, even when (or perhaps especially when) anyone attempts to make it warm. The camera follows Cleo as she is alternately embraced and berated by the family’s matriarch.
For me, this awkward dynamic between them was the most realistic and painful to grapple with. More than anything else, I believe Roma is an accurate depiction of the casual cruelty to which so many domestic workers in Mexico are constantly subjected. In depicting seemingly loving displays of affection alongside the abuse, Cuarón reveals exactly why upper-class families in Mexico have been able to turn a blind eye towards the pain and oppression of their hired help for all these decades; they find ways to convince themselves that it’s not so sinister.
In a scathing takedown of the film for the LA Review of Books, Scout Tafoya describes Roma as “a movie made to appease the ruling class: fawning in its praise of power, it dead-ends at an image that literally deifies servitude,” as if it had failed to show the sharp inequality between the Cleo and the family members. He then goes on to claim that Cuarón restages his protagonist’s life as “one of happy servitude.” This characterization makes me wonder if we watched two completely different movies. I would hardly describe it as a feel-good story, or one that attempts to — much less succeeds at — exonerating the ruling class. If anything, it manages quite the opposite.
Since Roma was released, I’ve been reminded of all the times I’ve heard people in Mexico recount and defend their own relationships with live-in maids, saying, “they may not be paid much, but they should be grateful they have a place to live, and food to eat.” In my experience, it is a fairly common belief here that a tiny room and a hot plate is a fair trade-off for round-the-clock labor, especially in light of the poor living conditions in rural areas.
Roma holds up a mirror to Mexican society in so many ways, showing aspects both flattering and repulsive. For Cuarón, directing it could well be an exercise in self-reflection and empathy. Mostly though, it feels like a love letter, not just to the author’s own childhood, but to everyone who can see a part of themselves reflected in it — to Libo, to my dad, to me. For non-Mexican viewers and critics alike, it’s a brief glimpse into a completely different world. And isn’t that what movies are supposed to be?