In Double Take, our writers offer two contrary perspectives on a cultural flashpoint.
In a relatively lengthy and perhaps slightly vicious response to Roma, Letterbox user Jon M. asks a simple question: whose film is this?
Amid the media fascination with Alfonso Cuarón’s meticulous reconstruction of his childhood home and supposed year-long casting quest for the perfect person to play Cleo — a character who is basically an exact portrayal of Cuarón’s own childhood maid Libo — this film’s champions have presented it as a heartwarming dedication to the woman who served Cuarón’s family for so long.
As a fellow student pointed out to me, the film is bookended by instances of Cleo battling against bodies of water to varying degrees. The film opens with her sweeping sloshes of dirty water toward a grate in the Cuarón family driveway. The film’s climax sees Cleo, despite being unable to swim, wading out into the violently crashing sea to save two of Cuarón’s siblings who would otherwise have drowned.
This drastic foreshadowing of Cleo’s water-based actions solidifies her story as necessarily predetermined. Though different in their magnitude and risk, both of these acts are equally dutiful. In both cases, Cleo performs these tasks for the sake of her employer.
Referring to the family as Cleo’s employer feels perhaps slightly alien and distant compared to how compassionately their relationship is portrayed in the film. This is, though, precisely one of Jon M.’s main contentions. Cleo and Sofia (Cuarón’s mother) forge a comforting solidarity throughout the film, largely motivated by their shared experiences of horrible male partners.
The decidedly pathetic male characters are, in turn, made the film’s primary antagonists. However, in doing so (as Jon M. argues) the film radically disavows, hides, and curtails the far superior “exploitative violence” of class division that at every turn restricts and immobilizes Cleo’s autonomy.
That isn’t to say the film avoids the question of class altogether. Rather, its depiction of class does little more than offer a superficial expression of sympathy. This sympathetic depiction of class division at the same time doubles down on this ideology as an unfortunate but inevitable phenomenon, as the bookended portrayal of Cleo as a dutiful water-bender evidences.
At no point is it possible for her to defer from the path that ultimately only wins her the affection of the family whom she is (still, very much) serving. Here too, the film’s heroic treatment of Cleo’s final selfless act is over-signified in its brilliance and bravery to once again obscure her continued subordination.
When asked in an interview about whether Libo had seen the film, Cuarón responded: “She likes it a lot. She cries a lot. The beautiful thing is that when she cries it’s not because of what is happening to her; it’s because she’s concerned about the children.”
Clearly, even outside of the film, Cuarón considers it admirable and acceptable that Cleo/Libo’s autonomy is restricted, limited, and contorted toward the ends of individuals who supersede her in social class.