Roma is fictionalized autobiography written, co-edited, co-produced, and directed by internationally acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who lived in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City when he was a child. It is a silvertone tapestry of sights and sounds recreating the feel of Mexico in 1970 with details that bring back the rich texture of ordinary days—the shrill whistle of the knife-sharpener, the soprano beep of the camotero’s bicycle, a sing-song voice hawking miel de colmena, children shrieking, cars honking, a radio blaring “Espera un poco, un poquito mas,” the rhythmic thump of damp laundry on concrete lavaderos, the visual messes of life in a surprisingly small kitchen, a rooftop work area, a narrow courtyard, a dining room and a TV room–where people gather in a mostly presentable and almost luxurious house. Cuarón explores the awkwardly intimate relationships of his middle-class Mexican family–parents, maternal grandmother, three brothers, one sister, and a dog–with their indigenous servants, Mixtec girls from Oaxaca, in particular Cleo, the character based on Cuarón’s nanny, whose real name is Liborio (Libo) Rodriguez.
A dramatic work should have a beginning, rising action, climax and conclusion. Real life, on the other hand, just goes on and on. In a dramatic work, significant scenes foreshadow things to come. Life sometimes foreshadows terrible or wonderful things, but then more often than not, nothing happens. Something terrible or wonderful happens when you least expect it, and at times it happens in such small installments that you miss the terror or wonder of it. Life goes on, zigzagging haphazardly through highs and lows, with no discernible rising and falling action or clear denouement, no background music to signal how you should feel. But every now and then, the richness of an ordinary sight, sound, taste, texture, event, or emotion takes your breath away. That’s what Roma is about.
Subtle visual clues and ominous silences had me waiting expectantly for something terrible to happen. During the long opening scene, I think blood may start to flow with the water cascading over the tile floor and down the drain as Cleo prepares the narrow courtyard for the day. I’m afraid Borras will run out and get hit by a car, or mild-mannered but edgy Papá will step in Borras’s poop, explode in a rage, and beat the poor animal to death as the horrified children look on. Sofía, like an arrogant villain in a telenovela, will probably treat beloved Cleo with cruelty and injustice. Then there’s the raging New Year’s Eve fire at the Norwegian relatives’ luxurious rancho that will certainly wipe out the family fortune. I am convinced that at least one of the children will drown in the ocean on a beach holiday. My expectations are influenced by scenes from thousands of movies and years of real-life maternal fretting about the real and imagined dangers of growing up human, especially in Mexico.
There is no blood in the opening scene, just a lot of water, Ajax, grime and dog poop. Borras survives; his one escape to the street ends with the kids unceremoniously hauling him back. Papá does indeed step in caca, but his rage emerges as a whining complaint about disorder in his house, implicating Sofía and the maids, and weakly justifying his decision to seek domestic order elsewhere. Sofia is not a telenovela villain; she is a kind woman who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, to behave like a proper middle-class matron. She is more egalatarian with the housemaids than I ever was with our own Esperanza. The raging fire at the Larsson rancho was a Scandinavian New Year custom that got out of hand. It is extinguished with buckets of water wielded by shouting, laughing family members and houseguests, including small children. It ends with Uncle Ove in Krampus costume singing poignantly Eg veit ihimmerik ei borg (I am longing for a heavenly home), echoed by the nostalgia in Cleo’s quiet comment, “This reminds me of my pueblo.” The near-tragedy at the beach is frightening, like a few scenes from almost anyone’s childhood, but Cleo, thrashing about, unable to swim and with no real lifesaving skills, manages to get Paco and Sofi back to safety on the shore.
Commonplace events are the real drama in Roma. Antonio leaves on a business trip and never returns. Fermín, a street kid saved from drugs and bad companions by martial-arts training, gets Cleo pregnant, and when she whispers during their Sunday movie outing that she has “missed her month,” he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and doesn’t come back. These events are so common in real life that it usually takes a good backstory to make them into movie material. Cuarón, nevertheless, has created an engaging film without much of a backstory. That little Pepe, who regales Cleo with disconcertingly detailed descriptions of real or imagined past lives, grows up to become an acclaimed filmmaker might be a good one, but we don’t learn Pepe’s destiny from the story line.
The climax, if there is one, is Sofía’s universal cry, “We are alone. No matter what they say, we are always alone.” The grammatical gender of solas–alone–tells us that this is about women–women who from the time they were little girls have been trained to find Mr. Right and hitch their lives to his dreams. The cry is almost comical. Sofía is a little tipsy and has demolished part of the car and part of the courtyard wall, attempting to navigate Antonio’s unwieldy Galaxy into the narrow space. She squeezes herself out of the car on the passenger side (an essential measure that she learned from Antonio), grasps Cleo’s face, and utters those words. Days later, in a burgeoning spirit of emancipation, she shows up in a brand new Renault, which fits nicely into the courtyard-garage.
A bloody event of historic proportion intersects with the household drama, but it remains a backdrop. On June 10, 1971, paramilitaries, government-trained in martial and other military arts, responded with violence to a peaceful student protest at the National Polytechnical Institute. The paramilitaries, called Halcones, attacked protestors first with bamboo sticks, then knives, then firearms, following some of them into hospitals and gunning them down in front of horrified patients and staff. The Mexican government denied responsibility for the massacre, and the press played it down, but forty-seven years later people are still asking questions.
On that real day, our semi-fictional Cleo, with the help of live-in grandmother Teresa, is shopping for a crib. The protests turn violent in front of the furniture store. Fermín, Cleo’s erstwhile lover runs into the store brandishing a pistol in pursuit of terrified protestors seeking shelter. For a moment, he turns the pistol on Cleo; he freezes and their eyes meet before he turns and runs. Cleo’s water breaks. Grandmother Teresa, with some incompetent flapping about, competently manages to guide Cleo out of the store and into the car that takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the hospital. She gives such information as she can to get Cleo into the delivery room, where the drama of any birth for the woman experiencing it contrasts starkly with what is just a day’s work for the hospital staff–even the calmly professional attempt to resuscitate an infant. The child, a girl, was stillborn.
The near-tragedy at the beach takes place after that, on a holiday for Sofía, the children, and Cleo. When the danger of drowning has passed, Sofía, Cleo, and the children huddle on the shore, sobbing and laughing with relief. Cleo says something that sounds like an apology for letting the children go out too far, but it is really a confession. “I didn’t want it,” she sobs. Sofía replies that the children are fine. Cleo insists, “No. I mean I didn’t want her to be born. Poor little thing. Pobrecita.”
“We love you, Cleo. We love you mucho,” Sofía assures her. Cleo probably would have cared lovingly for her daughter, but her honesty sears through eons of maternal myths. Earlier, Sofía had also turned some female myths around as they were relaxing in a little oceanfront cafe, and she tells them that Papá will not be coming back, that they have taken this holiday so he could pick up his books and things. She could have indulged in pity for herself and her abandoned children, poisoning them with bitterness toward Antonio forever. Instead, she affirms that he loves them very much and assures them they will survive no matter what. She has taken a full-time job, and everything will be a new adventure for all of them. There will be tears and changes, but they will survive. No rising music and bucolic landscapes tell us that from now on everything will be okay, but we know it will.
Life will go on because that’s what life does. If we’re lucky, we will occasionally perceive the richness of ordinary days and the terror and the wonder of it all.