Roma

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First, it’s not about gypsies. Roma is a neighborhood in Mexico City.

Second, it’s not a thriller, or a mystery, or a comedy (except perhaps of manners), or a drama. It’s not fantasy, anime, or horror. I would call it cinema verité, a slice of life, in this case a short period in the life of Cleo, an indigenous woman who serves as a maid to the deteriorating family of a physician. She and Adela, another maid, wake up the children, kiss them and love them, make meals, clean the house, and work from morning until night.

Cleo is affectionate, a para-mother, to the four children, three boys and a girl. They love her back and the relationship among them is strong enough that, despite not knowing how to swim, she wades into the Bay of Campeche to save Sofi from drowning as threatening waves break all around them.

The film is told with Cleo and her life as its center, and a good part of it covers the evolution of her pregnancy, the result of one afternoon with Fermín. Fermín’s full frontal nudity, while brandishing a staff in martial arts fashion, serves to highlight what I perceived as the strongly feminist theme. His is the only nudity in the film.

Cleo’s pregnancy ends in the birth of a dead girl. The physician moves away from his home, leaving his wife, her mother, the four kids, Cleo and Adela in the family house. After a drunken drive into the garage with the oversized, masculine body of a Ford Galaxy, the wife says to Cleo, “We’re all alone Cleo. We women are always alone.” Her mother is there, alone. Cleo and Adela are there alone.

Cleo tells Fermín that she’s late while they are at a movie. He says, “That’s good, yeah?” She looks a little bewildered, but nods. “I’m going to the bathroom.” He disappears. When she finds him much later, he’s moved back to a village and trains there. She asks him if he has a minute. He shouts at her, brandishes his staff, “It’s not mine. If you come back, I’ll beat your face in.”

Though the film consistently portrays the physician’s family, including his wife, as caring for Cleo, “We love you, Cleo, very much.” there is always the underlying dynamic of employer/employee. “Will you fire me?” Cleo asks when informing the wife of her pregnancy. “Of course not.” The story from Cleo’s point of view suggests several different times that her position could be precarious, even if the family does love her.

We don’t see films focused on servants. Especially not films that take a more or less neutral attitude toward servitude like Roma. Yes, we see the threat to Cleo, but we also see the families genuine affection for her, the children’s, too. She displays no anger at her life, nor does Adela. Her most negative emotions come after the birth of her dead girl. She sits and stares.

The black and white film, the setting in the early 1970’s, and the depiction of an infamous police riot against protesting college students give Roma the patina of a story from long ago, as if the participants were sitting around a campfire somewhere recounting that year that Cleo got pregnant. In that sense, and in its third person style, gives the viewer a distance from the events in the movie, like watching a newsreel.

This is a powerful, well-observed film. It drew me in to Cleo’s world, made me ache with her, want more for her, appreciate her love for the children, which, of course, drew a double line of irony under her unsuccessful pregnancy.

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