Roma Does Volumes For Immigrants By Not Telling Their Story Upfront

Archita Kashyap - 79 weeks ago

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is the global cinephile’s current toast. In creating a visually enriched, striking experience, which captures the story of a family and at its heart, that of the family’s domestic help Cleo with universality and neutrality, Cuaron has managed to achieve a tall order in simple and powerful storytelling.

The toast of the Oscars and most awards this year, the film that set a new benchmark in story telling, Roma, serves a greater purpose for immigrants. The film steers clear of outright political leaning or expression, but it directs attention unilaterally to the coping mechanisms of common folk - be it commonplace, rural or upwardly mobile, urbane Mexicans. It also paves the way for thinking ahead of long term consequences of these incidents on Mexico as a nation. 

(A still from Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Image Courtesy - Netflix)

Cuaron’s Roma, while placed in the backdrop of a politically dynamic and socio-politically restless Mexico of 1970-1971, is essentially the story of women coping with tectonic change in their lives and the lives of their own. Cuaron has lived with this story for many years. He decided to return to Mexico to make it on his own terms. Casting for Roma was not easy. Finding a domestic worker whose eyes could speak volumes, the filmmaker sent out armies of casting agents to locate her. Yalitza Aparicio, who finally got the role was set to embark on a career of pre school teaching. She chose to do Roma on impulse, and now has an Oscar nomination for Best Actress to her credit. 

Cleo’s life, despite political rumblings against wealth and privilege and land grabbing by the state, remains passive. She serves, does her job, and keeps a rambunctious, crowded and busy household functioning even as the family begins to fall apart. Cleo is devoid of politics, opinions or judgments. In her decision to retain a child born out of wedlock, Cleo’s absolute lack of consideration of an abortion reflects a deep-set Catholic mindset prevalent in Mexico. 

Roma is a visually stunning cinematic experience. Yet one misses the voice of Cleo and people like her, emerging in strong relief. But Cuaron’s effort, clearly, seemed to be to keep Cleo and her life neutral in this journey. In all workings of this suburban, bustling household located in Roma, Cleo is visibly invisible; she is crucial to it’s running, all tasks and every detail. Her employer takes her for granted entirely, as do the kids who love her, assuming that menial housework is part of who she is, and not just a job. This visible invisibility that Cuaron has focused on without hype or without a subtext of raging anger gives it huge, highlighting stark difference amongst social classes without making a fuss. While speaking about Roma with Hollywood media, Cuaron has highlighted the universality of his film’s characters by stating that a film about a domestic worker from Mexico has held sway over festivals and awards. This in itself is the greatest service that Roma does- it humanizes the faceless, poor Mexican or South American immigrant at US borders, making them feel like real people in an otherwise macro viewed public and media discourse (around the problem of immigration). 

As the global political atmosphere gets increasingly vitiated with a rising tide against refugees and immigrants of war and conflict, that Cuaron could maintain neutrality and objectivity while narrating Roma, is an achievement in it’s own. His film’s altering, granular backdrop is simmering with revolts, an oppressive government, constant conflict and a steadily deteriorating law and order situation. The divide between the rich and the poor continues to grow, as a sudden forest fire surrounding the property interrupts merry, posh Christmas celebrations at a hacienda. In more ways than one, the current state of affairs of Mexico- of an economy struggling against crime and poverty to bring stability- begins to emerge as complex consequences of this volatile political era. 

At the same time, the rich and privileged are not heartless here. Cleo’s employer supports her through an unplanned, unwed pregnancy in a fervently Catholic country, never imposing moral judgment. Without directly stating any of this, and by not commenting on the politics of the 70s in Mexico, where Roma is set, Cuaron speaks loud and deep with his film. 

(A still from Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Image Courtesy - Netflix)

Roma also seems to have caught the discerning viewer’s attention around the world because of the plight of largely Mexican immigrants in the USA today. Their suffering has steadily made headlines, their desperation to start over in the USA has become fodder for documentaries and films and TV shows in recent times. Cuaron himself would be considered an immigrant to the world of Hollywood.

He might be a valued import today, but in a points based skills system, Cuaron could easily have been left undiscovered. Speaking at the Lyon Luminaire Film Festival earlier, he pointed out that losing touch with one’s roots and language, homogenizing to Hollywood, is a great threat to a filmmaker. Making Roma, to him, was a return to roots, to a country whose misery today was seeded in the 70s that he grew up in. The innocence and simplicity of childhood memories shine through in his narrative for this film, making Roma extraordinary in the way audiences receive it; like a childhood photo album of lived memory. 

The filmmaker has not mentioned if Roma indicates his personal relationship with his father, the character that abandons his family in the movie. But Cuaron’s father, as a nuclear scientist with the International Atomic Energy Agency, certainly ensured that his childhood was comfortable. He represents the well off Mexican immigrant whose entry to the United States would be considered an asset.  His focus on a personal story of his house maid and care taker reflects a deeply felt sensitivity in him, for someone who might be less privileged but emotionally, mattered more to him for her dedication and affection. In his interpretation, he does more for the Mexican immigrant that news reports, documentaries or journalistic pieces do. 

(A still from Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (Image Courtesy - Netflix)

Stories of immigrants are the new fertile ground for sensitive, honest filmmaking. Their trauma is visible and smarting like fresh wounds. But the journey to their status of becoming refugees or being forced to flee homes and lives are a result of continuous turbulent historical events involving Western nations and turbulent nations in the Middle East, North Africa and South America. Naturally filmmakers are drawn to these stories and have delivered their most honest work around them. As popular art, films can do what news stories can’t; awaken people to an ongoing reality that we can’t choose to ignore.


Roma / Alfonso Cuaron / Yalitza Aparicio / Netflix / Mexico / Oscar / Academy Awards

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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