Alfonso Cuaron’s celebrated film ROMA is a visually beautiful and expertly shot film that has garnered great critical acclaim. It’s a poetic tribute to the women who raised him: his mother is represented by the character Sofia, and the family caretaker is an indigenous Mexican woman named CLEO. Cuaron sought to make a film which celebrates the strength and resiliency of women living in a culture where they must contend with a hierarchy that places the demands of men above all else. But Cuaron has also, perhaps unwittingly, made a film about the racial and economic divide that exists in post-colonial Mexico; a division in which indigenous women like Cleo are forced to contend with not only the struggle of gender bias but the often insurmountable burden of racism and poverty.
The story takes place in Mexico City during the 1970s, a time of political unrest and personal upheaval for Cleo and the family she serves. The father, a successful, well-to-do doctor, is largely absent from the film, and when he is present, he’s an unpleasant character, complaining about the dirty state of the house until he walks out on his family, presumably for another woman. The theme of male abandonment is present in both the stories of Sofia and Cleo. Sofia is now forced to face life as a single mother, a frightening prospect for a woman in any country during any era. Cleo is dealing with her own personal crisis: she learns she is pregnant and the man responsible abruptly abandons her-in a movie theater-when she tells him.
Cuaron tries to draw a parallel between these two women, to unite them in the betrayal and abandonment they endured at the hands of selfish men indifferent to their suffering. He attempts to put them on common ground as women when Sofia, in a moment of drunken despair, proclaims, “We women are always alone.” Sofia is a sympathetic, vulnerable woman in this moment, and it is understandable that at a low point in her life she would feel this sentiment, but her statement in the context of this story begs the question: Are all women always alone and in a world rife with racial and economic inequality, or are some women more alone than others? Sofia’s words are moving, filled with the promise of sisterhood for women everywhere; yet when she uttered these words, I wanted to utter back: You are not alone, Sofia. You live with your mother who is always there to help you. You live with your four children. You have hired live-in domestic workers who do everything for you, including the messy business of raising children. It is your female domestic workers that are truly alone, miles from their families and communities.
The treatment of Cleo by her female employers is unpredictable. When Cleo tells Sofia she may be pregnant, Sofia shows genuine kindness and assures Cleo she will not fire her. Sofia takes Cleo to the doctor for prenatal care. But Sofia also displays unjustified anger and aggression towards her. There are several ugly scenes where an enraged Sofia screams at a hapless Cleo. One of these scenes occur when Cleo is well into her pregnancy. Cleo walks away, unable to defend herself, trapped in a perpetual state of servitude and passivity. She is a character with no voice. She works endlessly and tirelessly, living with the family so as to ensure that she is always on call. Sofia’s mother Teresa is also inconsistent in her treatment of Cleo. There is a scene where Cleo and her fellow caretaker Adela are forced to use candles because Sofia’s mother Teresa doesn’t want them to use electricity. Apparently, electricity is too precious a commodity to be wasted on the household help. Sofia may feel alone, but at least she doesn’t have to endure her loneliness in the dark. Still, it is Teresa who goes with Cleo to purchase a crib and takes her to the hospital when she goes into labor. These are scenes that highlight the strength that women draw from one other when we band together. But they also remind the viewer of how vulnerable Cleo’s position is within this family. These women have great divisions between them, the balance of power is never equal, and while this film demonstrates female empowerment, some women, simply by their privileged status, have more power than others, which they may or may not use to help others.
Cuaron shows her in constant motion, but she almost never articulates her inner life and thoughts. Her existence as the hired help in that family perhaps does not allow her to have a voice, but what of her thoughts? Surely, Cleo has the ability to form thoughts and feelings regarding her situation. When she learns she is pregnant does she want the child? Is she tempted to have an abortion? Does she have religious beliefs that would prevent her from seeking one? How does she feel about the abandonment of her lover? Does she love him? Does she want him in her life? The viewer can only guess what she is feeling. It is important to note that abortion was not decriminalized in Mexico City until 2007, but illegality would not necessarily preclude a woman from seeking to obtain one.
This film aims to celebrate the empowerment of women when they join forces and take on the world together. It has largely succeeded. Sofia will thrive without her scoundrel of a husband. His abandonment has opened up her world as she returns to the workforce. She announces she is not going to resume her career as a biochemist, but rather she will forge a career in publishing because books and literature are what she really loves. She is a privileged individual in Mexican society, so well connected, so utterly not alone she has the option of pursuing whatever career she chooses. At the movie’s end, her ex-husband’s abandonment is complete as he removes all his items and personal objects from the home. He may have taken all the bookshelves, but Sofia is left with her books; the physical objects that mean something to her.
And what is to become of Cleo? What does she get at the end of all of this? Her future is much more precarious, both within and outside the family she serves. At one point in the movie, Sofia says that her estranged husband is not paying support for the family. Of course, the viewer feels disgust and anger towards the husband, but I also thought: “Yikes, is Cleo slaving away for this family for free?” By the movie’s end, Sofia has become kinder towards her. Cleo’s future is dependent not on the kindness of strangers, but of this family. It may or may not work out for her, but if it doesn’t, it will not have been her fault because it isn’t her decision. We know all is restored within the family when one of Cleo’s charges turns to her and says, “Cleo, can I have a smoothie?” I wanted her to say, “Hey, kiddo, I’ve had a rough couple of weeks, why don’t you learn how to make your own damn smoothie?” But, of course, she is in no position to utter such words because she is forever subservient to that family and her options are greatly limited. By the movie’s end, Cleo is in no stronger a position than she was at the beginning which stands in great contrast to Sofia.
We’re ripe for a conversation on how we treat domestic workers in the United States. RUBEN MARTINEZ wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times where he discusses, among other topics, the legacy of colonialism in Mexico and its far extending implications for domestic workers. Hopefully, this film will generate a conversation about the rights of this largely female workforce, both in the United States and Mexico.
Alfonso Cuaron has given us a film that starred an indigenous Mexican woman, and that is a significant step in making cinema more inclusive. But the film that gives such a woman a genuine voice has yet to be made. In the final moments of the film, Cleo says to her friend Adela, “I have so much to tell you.” It would have been illuminating to hear what insight she was going to share with her friend, and it is disappointing that we will never know.
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