Roma: A Tale of Mexico City Memories

The latest film Roma, currently streaming on Netflix and in theaters, is a true story based on the director Alfonso Cuaron’s memories of his childhood. In the entire film, Alfonso Cuaron takes his audience back in time by revisiting the sounds and sights of that very neighborhood that inspired him to make his critically acclaimed movie. This film magnificently portrays what seems like an overlooked life back in the 1970s Mexico City.

Roma: A Tale of Mexico City Memories

credit: romacuaron

Roma is actually a film that centers primarily on the lifestyles of domestic workers in Latin America. This true story is both a masterful and refreshing in its own context. The whole story is drawn from Cuaron’s vivid memories from his childhood as well as those of Liboria Rodriguez, his nanny and an indigenous Mixtec girl from Tepelmeme village at the heart of Oaxaca. The whole story comes out clearly presenting the stunning and brutal portrait of the daily life in Colonia Roma (neighboring Mexico City) in the early 1970s.

In the movie, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in her breakout performance is portrayed as a live-in maid hailing from Oaxaca and working for a family of six. She is seen sweeping floors, scooping dog poop and hand washing laundry. Occasionally, she would take a break only to be seen playing dead with Pepe, the youngest of the children in that family. Or she would join the entire family to watch the late-night television news.

Cleo’s duties resume very early in the morning to ensure that the kids-a girl and three boys are all awake for school. Also, she stays up late in the night as her duties demand to see that all the kids are gone to bed before turning off the lights.

At some point she is just there, standing off-center and watching Sofia (Marina de Tavira), her employer, squeezing her husband closely in what looks like an awkward embrace. Then the husband proceeds to get into the car and drives off to the airport for his work trip to Quebec.

credit: romacuaron

Again Cleo is still there when Sofia gets upset after the phone call conversation with her mother. Sofia is distraught after stumbling on Paco, her teenage son, eavesdropping on her confidential conversation and then she goes ahead to punish him in retaliation. The boy drops on the floor, crying in pain and she also falls on the floor to console him. Upon realizing that Cleo is watching the unfolding events, Sofia glares at her asking her to look for something to keep her occupied rather than standing there.

The whole drama does not end there and then. Cleo is also there in the evening waiting patiently to open the garage gate for Sofia. That particular evening Sofia had taken advantage of her husband’s prolonged stay in Quebec to return home from her drunken night out driving her husband’s Ford Galaxy. When she finally gets home, she is seen veering dangerously into the driveway, scraping and slamming the car against the walls shortly before slipping out.

“No matter what they tell you,” Sofia breaks the silence in her slurred speech, clutching Cleo’s timid face by the doorway, “we women are always alone”. What Cleo does is to stay calm and expressionless, staring back at her in surprise. For the first time, the two women seem to be entangled in a fleeting recognition of their shared pain. But that pain is immediately overshadowed by their contrasting lifestyles and lopsided relationship. Eventually, Sofia gets into the house, takes the stairs and heads into her room while Cleo is left standing outside, focusless and looking in.

Mexico City in the 1970s

credit: romacuaron

The fact that the movie, Roma, was shot in black and white, this is enough reason to give it a sense of history given that the events described took place in the 1970s. As mentioned earlier, the film gives a detailed account of Mr. Cuaron’s family and it is set mainly in a large modernist home in Colonia Roma. This was a middle-class neighborhood on the verge of decline although it has been recently re-gentrified. The movie Roma takes everyone down the memory lane by evoking the vanished Mexico City’s glory in the early 1970s.

The city was at the time, experiencing exponential growth with overwhelming city services but choking its air with pollution. It was then that the influx of people from the countryside would create a housing crisis leading to the popping up of shanty towns on the fringes of the city. The Colonia Roma was gradually slipping away from being an upper-class neighborhood as commercial buildings started replacing the iconic historic mansions.

Roma is a depiction of an era’s truth highlighting the predicament of a domestic worker and her boss, in the middle-class Mexican family on the brink of falling apart. Also, the film is about a specific place-Mexico City-in a particular setup in its modern history. The whole story raises very important questions regarding race, class and the future of a developing nation.

credit: romacuaron

Most of the scenes are shot indoors or to be specific, inside the house that resembled Cuaron’s childhood home within Roma. As the camera goes inside, the city’s sound follows it in. This is true because, during the quiet scenes, the traffic roar in the distance, dog’s barks, car horns, and the street vendors’ chorus could be heard in the background. All these are just but a constant reminder that the gigantic Mexico City is alive and lurking outside the door. This looks like an important character in the entire movie setup and one that should demand respect.

However, Curion says that the film is much about the wider social context the same way it is about the family depicted in the story itself. The whole idea was for Cuaron to go ahead and explore family wounds, personal wounds and perhaps the wounds he shared collectively in his childhood with the rest of the country and humanity in general. And that is why the presence of Mexico City in the movie is fundamental.

More than any figure or historic event, Roma is a film that is meant to embody both the society at large and at its individualistic aspect in particular. It is indeed a touching story of a domestic worker, narrated by the young boy who adored and cherished her the most to understand her whole life.