Roma is a beautiful film that covers issues of gender, race, class and violence in Mexico. Dedicated to, and based on, writer/ director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood nanny and housekeeper “Libo” (Liboria Rodríguez), the film follows Cleo (the sublime Yalitza Aparicio), a young Mixtec woman employed by an affulent Mexican family. She has lived with them since the children’s birth, herself perhaps still in her 20s. She is beloved by the children, but is still treated like a servant.
Her woman employer, Sofia, also tells Cleo she loves her at a pivotal point in the film, even as we see how she flies into rage, diminishes Cleo and blames her for insignificant details. Sofia’s mother also lives in the household, mostly indifferent to Cleo, until tragedy strikes. At one stage, having been on her feet all day working, Cleo sits on the ground, holding the children’s hands, as the rest of the family sits comfortably on the couch watching TV. Sofia then directs Cleo to get her husband a drink after Cleo is settled.
These are women separated by race and class, but who are bound together by the men in their lives who neglect and mistreat them. The men are a wreck. Everyone, including Sofia, call the philandering husband ‘The Doctor,’ his status, vanity and whims disrupting everything around him.
Cleo is a stoic, patient but complex woman, who witnesses inequality and hardship largely silently, but when she speaks, particularly of her hometown, she is resplendant. Her final monologue shows she’s reflexive, more aware about her motives and mixed emotions than all the other characters. She is tough, making a long journey to find her listless lover. When others struggle to follow the instructions of a martial artist, Cleo quietly completes the move, at the back of the crowd.
The role that Indigenous people play in the economy, and their challenge to political life, are the backdrop of this slowburning masterpiece. While cinema continues to write women as caricatures, and erase Indigenous women in particular, this film has created a thoughtful Indigenous woman character whose language and struggles take centre stage. Her friendship with the beautiful and jovial Adela, the second houseworker, is a joy, as they joke, whisper and support one another in both Mixtec and Spanish. Go see it at the cinemas if you can, but it’s also now also streaming on Netflix.