“Roma” is a Mexican film that got 10 nominations in this year’s Oscar awards. There was strong speculation it would bag the best film award; in the end, it did win the best film but in the foreign category. It also won Alfonso Cuarón awards for best cinematography and best director.
I saw the film some weeks back on Netflix and did a quick second browse after it won Oscars. Both times, if it had not been for the Spanish audio, I felt I was watching a film about the Philippines.
“Roma” focuses on the life of Cleo, a domestic helper working for a middle-class Mexican family in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Early in the film, the camera zooms into a car license plate registered for 1970-1971, and I could guess the film would have, as a backdrop, the turbulence found at that time throughout the world, including Mexico and the Philippines.
The film is political, but not preachy. It’s storytelling at its finest, no slogans, no platitudes.
The film is semiautobiographical. In an interview with the entertainment magazine Variety, director Cuarón describes his motivations: “[Jorge Luis] Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered memory, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.”
Cuarón has directed many other award-winning films, like “Gravity” (an Oscar for best director in 2013), “Y tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” But for “Roma,” he also did his own cinematography and chose black-and-white photography, which captures his memories even more vividly.
The scenes are stark in portraying Cleo’s life. There’s the clothesline with a long row of clothes that were hand-washed; this was, after all, in the prewashing-machine era.
There’s the employer’s car arriving, his car honked several times and with urgency, as people do in the Philippines, practically shouting out, what’s taking you so long?
There’s Cleo telling the dog he needs a bath, and her cleaning the driveway of dog poo. Yes, as in the Philippines, the employer never tires of complaining about unpicked dog poo.
Generally, Cleo’s family is kind and gracious, as many of us are in the Philippines, but the class differences keep emerging—for example, her cramped quarters up on the roof, and her being constantly at their beck and call.
Her employers, especially the grandmother, do go out of their way for her when she becomes pregnant — and is abandoned. (Again, doesn’t that sound familiar?) The grandmother takes her to a department store to look for baby stuff, and they are caught in the middle of a violent encounter where armed paramilitary forces storm into the department store, chasing after and shooting protesters. Cleo is shocked to see her former boyfriend is one of the armed men.
That scene was based on the Halconazo massacre, a real-life event that happened on June 10, 1971. The civil unrest is important. Both the Philippines and Mexico went through an economic boom in the late 1950s into part of the 1960s, but economic inequities remained, leading to widespread civil unrest. In the Philippines, we saw a backlash against the unrest: martial law.
Through thick and thin, Cleo is loyal to her employers, and I won’t let you know to what extent, because that would be a spoiler.
“Roma” is powerful in the way it weaves together several stories — of Cleo, of her employer family, even of Mexico. For Filipinos especially, there is much to identify with. Remember last year when Filipino-American writer Alex Tizon confessed, in an article in The Atlantic, how his family kept a Filipino woman as their domestic worker for several years without a salary? That led to much soul-searching here in the Philippines.
One more important backstory: “Roma” marks the acting debut of actress Yalitza Aparicio, who portrays Cleo. Aparicio was nominated for a best actress Oscar. Her parents were both indigenous people, and her mother was a domestic helper, too.
Watch “Roma” for its cinematography and its superb acting, but don’t forget the real-life stories behind the story, including how we still separate our personal lives from the political.
I hope “Roma” inspires our own filmmakers, whether scriptwriters, actors, directors, even sound editors and set and production designers (imagine restaging the riots), to roll out films based on historical memories. Film is a powerful medium that can make it easier for us to bring back historical memories and, more importantly, to heal their many recurring pains.
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