Alfonso Cuarón has made a feminist film. A friend of mine, a Chicana artist and activist, said I had to see Roma. Well, everyone’s saying you have to see it, but she insisted that its accuracy about relations between Mexican men and women was “liberating.” No way can I or would I contradict her, of course, yet when a brilliant filmmaker or novelist tells a particular story, it moves beyond the immediate circumstances that propel it.
Though I grew up in a middle class Jewish home in Chicago in the 50s (not Cuarón’s Mexico City of the 60s and 70s) where my parents operated closer to equals than not, the stories down the block, whether among our mostly Jewish, but also Polish, Serbian, and a few WASP neighbors, revealed intact power relations with the men having nothing to fear.
In Cuarón’s film the opening credits roll over what looks like a tiled floor which gradually comes into view as a cement block, narrow interior driveway periodically dotted with dog shit which demands that Cleo, the young indigenous maid from Oaxaca, regularly scrub it down, her Sisyphean task. All we see at first is the soapy water spilling onto the stone. We don’t see Cleo— we just see the work that marks her life. But the upper middle class family she serves, with its four children, neglectful father, tense mother, and deceptively doddering grandmother, makes more room for her than the class differences between them might dictate.
Mexico City has recently been rocked by the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and Cuarón brings back that political tension through his re-staging of the Corpus Christi massacre, which takes place three years later. Still part of Mexico’s dirty war against students and teachers, farmers and workers, the second massacre wrenches Cleo from an innocent shopping trip for a crib with grandmother to the grim hospital scene that nature predicts earlier in the film—earthquake, forest fire, hailstorm. We know Cleo is doomed.
Yet she survives, and after a heroic scene where the ocean turns on two of her charges, she breaks down, sheltered by the children she has just saved along with their siblings and their neurotic but newly-grounded mother. Cleo reveals her own moment of liberation, though that freedom remains bittersweet. Her stillborn daughter releases her from any connection to a cruel and indifferent man.
Cleo rides in the back seat of the car cradling two of the family’s children while mother Sofia chauffeurs them all back to Mexico City from the Veracruz beach. Cuarón’s camera follows the clouds reflected on the car windows spilling out over each member of the family, resting finally on Cleo and those two youngest children.
Earlier on the trip when Sofia breaks the news that her husband is leaving them, she promises the children an “adventure.” Sobbing, they’re not convinced. She has a new job in publishing where she will make more money and she reminds them how much she loves books. Their father, she tells them, will be removing his things from their home while they are in Veracruz. What things? The children ask. His clothes. His books. The bookcases. Sofia explains. But when they arrive back home, the books are piled up everywhere, liberated from the shelves, which Antonio has in fact taken. Will he return again to box the books up and cart them off? Or in the end is it only the containers he wants? Too late. The revolution has begun.
The closing credits roll over another remarkable still—yet moving—life. It’s the metal stairway that Cleo uses to take to the roof. To the sky. That stairway to heaven. We get a glimpse of it from the ground at the start of the film, where we also see the chirping birds locked in cages, just as the women and children are locked up in the gated house.
Cuarón gently guides us back to the beginning of his film: the plane reflected in a puddle on the driveway in the opening credits. A hint of sky and freedom in that driveway. The place that needs constant cleaning. Cleo is climbing those stairs to do the laundry. Class and patriarchy intact. But no one is the same as when those opening credits rolled. Not Cleo. Not Sofia. Not any of us.
Death and grief permeate the film. García Lorca’s duende. Cuarón returns us to the melancholy of “deep song” that forever changes us. “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.” A song about youthful idealism streams out of a café just before the friend of one of the sons sees Antonio with another woman in front of a movie house. Not ready for his childhood to end, the son refuses to believe that man is his father.
The grief that rolls over us like the ocean. Like the pangs of childbirth, we get respite from it. The first, marking loss and death. The other, intended to introduce new life. Yet sometimes grief trumps joy, and new life is stillborn. The revolution is aborted. The people are beaten down. But another way to read those tragedies is as sacrifices to a new world. The transformation, the “miracle,” that Lorca promised us.
The broken family. The stillborn child. The students murdered. Revolution’s losses. Buried deep inside every one of them curls the seed for the next struggle.
I know when my friend called Cuarón’s masterpiece “liberating,” she meant that it freed her to see the story about the Mexican men and women she grew up with made public. It validated her reality. But the liberation I’m talking about here is the one embedded inside the story Alfonso Cuarón tells of two women. That feminist story I began with.
Leslie Simon is a professor of Museum Studies and the former chair of the Women’s Studies Department at City College of San Francisco. Her writing credits include “Why Denzel Washington (not Tom Cruise) Is the New Paul Newman” (Film Comment); A Music I No Longer Heard: The Early Death of a Parent, co-authored with Jan Johnson Drantell, (Simon and Schuster); and Collisions and Transformations: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press).