In Double Take, our writers offer two contrary perspectives on a cultural flashpoint.
As someone who loves watching films from all parts of the world, I’m ecstatic seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish- and Mixtec-language Mexican film Roma receive so much praise. The semi-autobiographical film centres on a year in the life of Cleo, a housemaid for a middle-class family, as she navigates through personal issues, attempts to fulfill certain goals, and tries to provide for her employers.
In Roma, Cuarón struggles with how to authentically represent the story of his beloved former housemaid Libo, while having to rely on memories that he experienced as a naïve and highly imaginative child in order to do so. His goal is to create a film that honours the person of Libo, whom he has come to deeply appreciate as a human being and not just as an objectified person who took care of him, his family, and his home.
Now, the film’s detractors have (quite cynically) accused Cuarón of not actually appreciating Libo as a person, and I can see why. In Roma, Libo’s surrogate Cleo seems to have little agency of her own. Additionally, the camerawork creates a sense of removal between the audience and Cleo, as emphasis on long tracking shots creates both a physical and emotional distance. The use of deep focus encourages viewers to fixate on the aesthetics of each elaborately composed shot rather than on Cleo.
Further, the film shows how Cuarón’s family used to disregard the personhood of Cleo/Libo, maintaining a strictly service-driven relationship by giving her orders and engaging in the minimum of conversation. For Roma to truly be a humanist film, it would have to make the audience empathize not only with her life, but also with the individual whom she is. By making a spectacle of Cleo’s life, Roma is arguably stripping her of both agency and humanity.
But, I think, this reading of the film is mistaken. The purpose of showing the servant-employer dynamic in Roma is not just, as its detractors argue, to foolishly try mending the class injustices of the past by simply acknowledging that they exist(ed), but rather, to make a piece which overtly represents Libo with the identity that Cuarón and his family did not recognize in her for so long.
What makes this film all the more poignant and important is that its story is one shared by many people who have been in similar situations: people who failed to acknowledge the individuality of those who worked under them.
By making Roma, a film centring explicitly on the person of a housemaid, Cuarón does indeed give a strong voice and image to people like her who are marginalized and underrepresented. Roma is hopefully a watershed moment in popular cinema, in that its success will allow for more films to be made about people whose stories should be shown more on-screen.
While it is certainly true that the cinematography does no favours in providing Cleo with humanity, it still shows her as a human being, with all the complexities and nuances that this entails. Furthermore, depicting the life experiences of Cleo in such a spectacular and mesmerizing manner valorizes her lived experience.
So, not only is Cuarón acknowledging that Libo exists with this film honouring her, but through the visual ornateness with which he does so, he additionally tries to acknowledge that her experience means something. Her life has intrinsic worth deserving of celebration through art.
Of course, Roma could have done a better job of depicting Cleo’s humanity, and by extension do a greater service to Libo’s. It could have shown the housemaid actively engaging in her existence rather than simply reacting to her environment. And having her more vocally express her thoughts and feelings would have made her individuality more prominent.
However, I think we’re right to question (as others have done) to what extent it is the place of Cuarón, a now upper-class Mexican man, to be depicting the individuality of a lower-class Mixtec woman. While he can (and should) certainly attempt to empathize with and honor Libo, Cuarón simply cannot actually put himself in her position.
But, as I have tried to argue with this review, Roma works as a celebratory showcasing of a woman who has suffered personal hardships and unfair treatment yet has managed to retain her humanity and ability to care for others throughout. This is the kind of aspirational message we should cherish in film. While we can criticize Roma for its shortcomings, we would be remiss to entirely disregard it because of them.