Cuarón’s Roma explores the complexity of womanhood

By KATY OH | February 14, 2019

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is the sensational masterpiece we are all — and should be — talking about. The film has also become the center of attention for the upcoming 91st Academy Awards, where it has secured nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Original Screenplay. And these prestigious accolades come just after countless other titles it has claimed over the few months since its 2018 debut at the 75th Venice International Film Festival. 

Roma is, in my opinion, everything tradition has failed to achieve. A black-and-white film, it is the most colorful story that explores all the realms of life as we don’t know it: the unspoken conflicts of womanhood, motherhood, sisterhood, toxic masculinity, marriage, family, marginalization, violence and separation. The film is set on 22 Tepeji Street in the district of Roma, Mexico City at the intersection of Alfonso Cuarón’s reimagined youth and the height of political tension in the ‘70s. And while we get glimpses of these political tensions, Cuarón prioritizes the smaller tensions within the space of the household, as Sofía, an uptight, privileged woman played by Marina de Tavira, imposes her marriage anxieties onto Cleo Gutiérrez, the live-in maid played by Yalitza Aparicio. 

The juxtaposition between Cleo and Sofía is, at first, a very clear, stereotypical distinction: Cleo, a young maid, takes care of the children and washes the symbolic garage floor with little objection, while Sofía, the controlling mother and employer, asserts her authority by making spontaneous demands and scolding the maids. You cannot help but view Sofía as the cold antagonist. And yet as the story progresses, the audience is exposed to greater sources of suffering inflicted on both characters as women. At one point, Cuarón cuts to the image of a Cadillac that is too wide for the family’s garage door, scratching its way through the tight space — a metaphor for the ways in which Cleo and Sofía must come to terms with their womanhood, all the while learning to maneuver through strainful relationships.

When Cleo ventures out to the city one day, she falls in love with Fermín, a young man who channels his masculinity through the form of martial arts. But their ephemeral love story is cut short when Cleo finds out she is pregnant. Fermín then abandons her, an inconsolable moment where Cleo’s sensuality is wrongfully denied by a marker of motherhood, a universal reality for many women. 

Moments of calamity and moments of solitude become points of healing and growth as Cleo and Sofía learn to, in some ways, depend on each other as a source of shared struggle, a dynamic that slowly erases the initial barriers between the maid and her employer. And while all of these sentiments are portrayed in the absence of color, the subtle sounds, movements and expressions are reinforced by the powerful black-and-white imagery. 

Alfonso Cuarón also incorporates powerful images of nature in its extremity. An earthquake, a forest fire, hail and crashing ocean waves all overpower the conflicts of the earth as uncontrollable forces. And yet these moments of fierce natural phenomenons are all reconciled with a certain peace that comes with the presence of children. While the infant nursery is struck with an earthquake, the camera cuts to a newborn baby in the incubator, its heart beating and its lungs contracting in silence. When Sofía takes her family on a trip to the countryside, a forest fire ignites, and yet the morning after much of all the forestry has been burnt down, the family children run around under the sunlight as Cleo overlooks a hill and takes in a deep breath, reminding herself of her home. Meanwhile, at the time of thunderous hail, once again, the children run out under the awning, basking in the drops of ice. 

Amidst preparation for the birth of her baby, Cleo and Sofía’s mother go shopping to purchase a crib. A government protest on the street turns violent, armed men run into the store and in moments of time, Cleo finds herself face to face with her baby’s father, Fermín. Shortly after, Cleo’s water breaks. The encounter is unnerving: A pregnant mother on the verge of childbirth stands before her estranged baby’s father, separated by an intense intersection of political violence, emotional abuse, negligence and gender inequality. 

The final intersection between nature and children is portrayed at the climax of the story, where Cleo, who cannot swim, saves Sofi and Paco, two of the four children who have ventured out into the ocean and nearly drown. Cleo falls to her knees in Sofía’s embrace — two strong women and their children huddling in a monumental shot that the captivates the gripping tale of Roma.

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