In his mesmerizing new film, 'Roma', Alfonso Cuarón returns to 'Y tu mamá también' to pick up the story of the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema.
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón's film Y tu mamá también where the protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside, oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters, as Tenoch looks at the town where his indigenous nanny comes from. Her name is Leo, and he called her 'mother' until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, Roma, Cuarón returns to Y tu mamá también to pick up the story of these others, the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema.
(Warning: MANY spoilers for Roma ahead!)
Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the neighborhood of Mexico City called La Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel, everyday lives of a middle-class family and their indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white employers.
Through great acting, directing, and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of domestic workers with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences between them. At the same time, we note that they have much in common, especially Cleo and Sofía, the lady of the house: both women's lives begin to unravel after the men they love abandon them. Sofía is left with a family of unruly children and little money, and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates mistress and servant, but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bring them together.
The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that Mexico is also going through. "Siempre estamos solas" ("we women are always on our own"), says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity, as depicted in this film. Cleo's situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town, also beset by political turmoil, or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds his more sinister side, which leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized.
Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz, where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously.
Roma goes beyond Y tu mamá también, and is also far ahead of all the falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play, and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of Roma ultimately rests on Cuarón skillful film narrative, in which he shows that, despite class, social, or ethnic differences, indigenous and white Mexican women suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
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