Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a study in contrasts

Based in a politically tempestuous time in 1970s Mexico, Alfonso Cuarón’s personal sketch gambols between the journey of Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutierrez as she serves as live-in help for a middle-class Mexican family, and the societal upheaval that swept through the country during that period. Civil conflict between the incumbent authoritarianism led by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and the left-wing guerilla faction, most of which were students, resulted in decades of insurgency, torture and systematic killing of civilians. Roma, however, does not seek to give you a historical account of that time. Instead, it uses the conflict as a backdrop for the chaotic turns in the lives of the characters. Cuarón’s choice of black and white as the mode of expression may be a prelude to the thematic contrasts that he portrays throughout the film. Without the resplendence of colour, the frames look stark as if all veils and embellishments had been removed from life to be presented as it is. All that is left is the interplay of lights and shadows that come together to create a story.

The cultural contrast

The scene shows a contrast between the gun-wielding powerful Mestizos and a subservient Cleo in the background (Credits – Netflix)

Mexico is a pluricultural state with a large variety of ethnic groups identifying themselves as Mexicans. However, from strictly demographic terms the ethnicities are broadly divided into the Mestizos or the people with a mixture of indigenous and European traits, and the indigenous people who have not been historically exposed to intermingling and do not have shared identities. The caucasian-like Mestizos are a highly influential community who have held government positions and hold political clout, while the indigenous people have largely been economically neglected, often working as household helps, mechanics, porters, waiters, etc. Through the generations, the indigena have slowly been assimilated into the middle-class mestizo society. This demographic gap is also seen in Cuarón’s portrayal of the family where Cleo is often admonished for her clumsiness but is also taken care of especially when she becomes pregnant. This is not a relationship of loyalty or love but more of a patron-beneficiary relationship that is seen here.

The gender contrast

A loving wife (Sofía) hugs her husband Antonio as his back is turned to her, symbolic of his negligent relationship with his wife (Credits – Netflix)

Cuarón’s observant eyes aren’t confined to a mere superficial, ideological difference in Mexico. He also highlights the predicament of womanhood in a patriarchal society where men do not have accountability for their actions and women are left behind to pick up the pieces and make a life for their children. Although Cleo and her employer Sofía are from two different strata, both of them experience a similar treatment by the respective men in their lives, albeit their outlook towards life was starkly different as was determined by their individual backgrounds. When Cleo reaches out to her “boyfriend” in his training camp to tell him about her pregnancy, he insults her and turns her down calling her a “servant” and making it clear that he had nothing to do with the child. At this juncture, Cleo is a broken woman who has immersed herself in self-inflicted shame, blaming herself for her ill fate. Sofía’s husband also leaves her for his mistress in Acapulco but her reaction is vastly different. After the initial shock, she takes over the household, becomes closer to her children, and takes control of her new, independent life. In a striking scene, where a drunk Sofía drives her husband’s car into their extremely narrow driveway, scratching and denting it, Cleo stands there to receive her. Before entering the house, Sofía holds Cleo’s face in her hands and says [sic] – “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”

The contrast of motherhood

Here Cleo hugs the youngest child of the family, one of the only people who loves her unconditionally. Cleo had always been a mother-like figure for them even if she didn’t know it herself (Credits – Netflix)

As the civil conflict between the PRI and the guerilla group erupts, Cleo goes into labour. A sad reality is also revealed to her when she sees her “boyfriend” running with the brigands killing civilians without regrets; the very man who had told her tales of his valor as a martial arts student the very night that they had laid together. Braving the disturbance on the streets, Sofía’s mother takes Cleo to the hospital. Laying on the gurney, she watches the doctors press her baby’s chest trying to revive it. But fate had deprived her of her motherhood, and her child dies in front of her eyes. A few weeks later, Sofía has brought a smaller car that fits perfectly in their driveway, signaling the end of patriarchy in the house. Before selling her husband’s car, she decides to take the children and Cleo to a beach. At the beach, Sofía leaves Cleo to look over the children and goes away for a bit. Even though Cleo asks the kids to stay near the shore, they venture deeper into the waves. In a harrowing sequence, Cleo is seen calling out to the children, walking into the waves, going farther away from the shore with each step. She eventually manages to grab the two children and bring them back to safety. Here, the hospital scene inadvertently comes into contrast where Cleo helplessly watches her child die. Although she wasn’t allowed to be a mother to her own baby, she remains one for Sofía’s children. She cannot let history repeat itself and saves “her” children from drowning. This is the scene where, for the first time, Sofía says that she ‘loves’ Cleo as her own family. The patronizing tone is gone. These are just two mothers hugging each other as sisters.

Credits – Netflix

Cuarón ingeniously weaves these facets of contrasts together in a story that flows spontaneously transitioning through each contrast and resolving it in the end. It’s as if he were telling us that even with the contrasts that are present around us, and that seem to be so rigidly molded, life doesn’t subjugate itself to these walls. In the end, there are no contrasts. They are just fleeting vignettes that cloud our present. Cleodegaria understands that in the end as she moves on with her life at 22 Tepeji street, Colonia Roma, right in front of the house where Cuarón grew up himself.

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