Roma: A Beautiful, Heartbreaking Reflection on Mexican Life
By Montserrat Vazquez-Posada
I love awards season, so when the list of Oscar nominations was released on January 22, I was deep in a bowl of Froot Loops excitedly checking my phone, hoping that what I thought were the best movies of 2018 made the cut. Sure, there were some snubs– there are every year–but I was far from disappointed, because Roma got ten nominations. Ten.
I cannot emphasize just how much the Netflix-released movie deserves each and every one of those nominations. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s film, based on his own childhood, follows an upper-middle class family and centers on their household maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Living in a time of political turmoil and amidst a broken family, Cleo is given the spotlight most domestic workers would have never received.
The tumultuous marriage between Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) creates a rift in the household that is only held together by Sofia’s perseverance and Cleo’s care. The resulting strong bond between two women blurs the line between employer and employee. Roma uses this unconventional relationship as a device to navigate what it means to be an independent woman, from someone as wealthy as Sofia to someone as poor as Cleo; though vastly different, the woman share in the same loneliness and fear.
The movie was filmed in color using a modern camera, but converted to grayscale. Instead of establishing a nostalgic tone, this method puts viewers in Cuarón’s stream of consciousness as he recalls what Mexico looked like growing up in the 1970s. My parents, who both were born in central Mexico around the same time as Cuarón, were touched by the accurate portrayal of domestic life. Simple shots of soapy water on the driveway floor as the whole family piles into their car for a weekend trip struck a chord with my chilanga mother, as I know it did with other Mexico City natives.
What’s so interesting about the movie is that it’s simultaneously profound and simple. I felt like I was invading someone’s privacy while watching Roma, I just can’t tell if it was Cleo’s or Cuarón’s. While Roma shares many universal messages, it is still arguably the director’s most personal film. As a viewer, you see his deep love for not only his struggling mother through the character Sofia, but also for the nanny who helped raise him through Cleo. The intimate, familial relationship between the children and live-in maid is reflective of many Mexican households. Besides just making sure the kids get dressed and fed in the morning, women like Cleo provide an emotional support system as well as a physical one.
Cuarón could not have chosen a better cast to portray his own life. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, especially stands out. She manages to remain stoic while still putting on an extremely emotional performance. Cleo’s story alone jerks more than just a couple of tears out of viewers. A schoolteacher from Oaxaca, Aparicio is the second Mexican woman to ever be nominated for Best Actress. Roma, which is entirely in Spanish, is being largely recognized at an American film festival instead of being confined to the “Best Foreign Film” category. In this often-bitter political climate, I can’t help but think how sweet it is that the movie is getting this much recognition. The immense appreciation displayed towards its authentic Mexican story goes to show that many still favor bridges over barriers…or walls for that matter. Cuarón himself put it best in an extended Netflix clip when he said, “It’s a film about the family, a city, and a country, but ultimately, it’s about humanity.” We see the truest, most gorgeous colors of Mexican life through this film, and the picture Cuarón paints is as heartbreaking as it is moving. I expect Roma to take home more than just one Oscar this Sunday. Even if gets snubbed, this outstanding film still holds a special place in my heart and those of many other Mexicans who rarely see movies that celebrate and explore their own culture this beautifully.