Social Class, Confidence & Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”

During the November midterm elections, much was made regarding a “migrant caravan”.  Numerous local, state, and national politicians (including our president) made much ado about the how these men, women, and children from Central America would bring a variety of societal ills to our country.  Conservative commentators raised fear and worry by claiming these individuals only mean to break the law and cause harm to innocent Americans.  A full month after the elections, the chaos and anarchy dreamed up by nationalist figures has yet to occur along our border. The president’s call for military presence was largely aimed to boost egos and win political races at the expense of service men and women. Today, the United States being seen as a beacon of hope and prosperity continues to be eroded. Tucker Carlson even eluded in his most recent rant that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer”.  Central in all these debates is knowledge that Latina/o/x communities are the recipients of stereotypes, discrimination, hatred, fear, and blame.

Yet, for all these discussions on Latina/o/x immigrants, much of American society takes advantage of these individuals in our economic and social environments. In the comfortable surroundings of my middle-class neighborhood, I see how my neighbors depend on a mostly Latina/o labor force to care for lawns, housekeeping, and handiwork. Some would believe that Latina/o/x immigrants come into our country expecting a free ride or taking away benefits from others.  I do not see this when I look out my window to see these individuals working morning, noon, and night. Work is respected and earned.  The narrative that Latina/o/x immigrants bring harm, drugs, and gangs is, to use a favorite phrase since 2016, “fake news”.

Knowing how I feel about immigrant rights and trying to understand the root of how immigrants are perceived and treated are a few reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was on my must-see list of holiday movies.  Cleo, the central focus of the movie, is one of the most emotionally realized characters put on film.  From what I read, Cuaron intentionally sought an actress with indigenous features to portray Cleo, who is modeled after the director’s beloved caretaker and nanny, Libo, who is mentioned at the very end of the film. Yalitza Aparicio, who was a pre-school teacher prior to acting in her first film, captures all the emotions beautifully her character Cleo faces.  The one fascinating aspect of Ms. Aparicio’s role is how she develops Cleo into a confident, proud, and respected figure during the course of one year, 1971.

Cleo is the epitome of many things that make us believe in true form of humanity, in my opinion.  Without giving away too much of the movie’s story, in the course of one year, she faces challenges and situations which would make normal individuals question their faith, trust in others, pride, society, and even nature itself.  Yet, Cleo remarkably overcomes each of these challenges with one thing she realizes come the end of that tumultuous year in Mexico – her confidence.

[A few minor spoilers ahead!] One of the things I love about Alfonso Cuaron’s movies is his use of subtle symbolism and visuals.  “Roma” is filled with these cues, which makes me want to watch the film one, two, three more times.  One interesting visual that caught my attention is the frequent appearance of an airplane in flight.  I took this visual as Cuaron’s way of letting us know Cleo’s mindset at that moment.  Is the plane landing?  Is the plane leaving?  In some scenes, especially the beautiful opening when a precise shot of the plane is reflected off a puddle of water, the plane foretells a significant event in Cleo’s life.  After viewing, I interpreted the plane as Cleo’s life path that maybe she’s considering.  Maybe she wants to leave the life of a live-in servant to a middle-class family to escape to another place.  Maybe she could see a peaceful (yet dusty and blurry) future with someone who doesn’t really love her back.  In the end, I loved how Cuaron uses this subtle visual to add to Cleo’s story. 

Cuaron again uses a baby to help his characters and the viewers understand the delicacy of humankind.  Again, new life in the world as viewed by Cuaron is tested in ways that is gut-wretching, yet hopeful.  As in this powerful scene from his dystopian vision of the future in Great Britain, “Children of Men”:

New life in the world is tested on day one.  In “Roma”, Cleo emerges from this challenge with a mixture of doubt and sadness on how fate questions her connection to humanity.  Yalitza Aparacio deserves an Oscar nomination just for the facial expressions she was able to produce in this portion of the movie.  Some actresses grandstand their pivotal scenes with shouts and emotional overkill.  Here, Yalitza (Cleo) connects with the viewer with what she doesn’t say and what she finds difficult to express.  It is a powerhouse of a performance. 

One of the most remarkable scenes in “Roma” is the re-enactment of the Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre.  Viewed from the window of a furniture store, the chaos and terror is capture in one unexpected moment of violence.  Again, Cuaron digs into his memory of this sad part of Mexican history which likely impacted his life.  Researching this event in the movie, I found the following explaining the chaos visualized in the film and the connection Cleo personally has to this horrific event:

What “Roma” captures with Cleo is her development into someone who always had tremendous confidence and strength, even among all the personal and natural disasters that came her way.  Which is the reason I loved this movie.  Without giving to much away, the director beautifully symbolizes her rise in respect and honor among the family members she cares for in Mexico City (plane visual included). After viewing, I equated this confidence with reasons why fear and distrust is placed among today’s immigrant population.  Those who see immigrants as making the United States “dirtier” are far from the truth.  For those we label as immigrants – or shall we say humans – they truly are beautiful, and they realize that.  People like Cleo and her best friend are part of one strong community others do not fully understand (or choose not to).  They support each other and when all hell breaks loose, they are resolute in their recovery.  Respect and honor is not something that is given, it is earned through tireless effort and diligence.   Individuals in Cleo’s world are treated with innocence, understanding, and most importantly love.  When not reciprocated, the idea that deep down people are still good keeps life going. All of these qualities and more make those individuals who lack this in their daily lives jealous. For them, gone is compassion, instead replaced by hatred. A life of privilege is a life that is unfulfilled. Unlike Cleo, you do not face challenges that test you.  Avoiding these on your own choosing makes you vulnerable to the stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that creates an easy, yet desolate, path of living life.  In the end, Cleo continues living life on her own terms, with the knowledge that she will only get stronger at each passing year.

“Roma” for me will be a movie that I can say impacted me for years to come. Film is art that I cherish and while some movies I view are lovingly called “Ric Flicks”, they embody what I want cinema to create – emotional reaction, character connection, and visual immersion. “Roma” had all of these and more.  Yes, you can say I give this film 5 stars (out of four)!   It does not have scenes that end in 1-minute, it is purposely slow paced, and interestingly does not have a musical soundtrack, just natural noise from the surroundings.  If you want a movie that will make you believe in the true beauty of understanding who you are in this chaotic world, I urge you to see “Roma”.


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