Written by: Victoria Alexander | December 16th, 2018
I felt bad for the family dog.
The Las Vegas Film Critics Society – of which I am a member – named Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA it’s Best Picture for 2018.
Unlike Cuaron, I have “childhood amnesia.” Cuaron has lovingly and in obsessive detail reimagined his childhood growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s.
Cuaron’s childhood is one of relative comfort – if a family has a staff (a nanny and a cook and a sometime driver), a fancy car and a house in the center of Mexico City with its own indoor parking – is that middle-class or upper-middle-class?
Sofi (Marina de Tavira), who we are to assume represents Cuaron’s mother, oversees a busy household. Her husband, Sr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a doctor who often goes away for medical conferences. There are four children, three boys and one girl. One day, Sr. Antonio announces he must go to Quebec for a few weeks.
Sofi has a household staff of 2, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy Garcia), who do everything for the family. Especially Cleo, who has developed a strong loving relationship with the children.
The only chore Sofi instructs Cleo to do is clean up the chained dog’s poop. Amazingly, Cleo never cleans it up! The dog is never walked, played with or even noticeably fed. I felt bad about the poor dog. The family ignored the dog who seemed to long for any kind of attention.
When weeks pass and no word from Sr Antonio, Sofi continues to lie to the children about his absence. He is hard at work in Quebec. Then he returns, never even going out of the city, gathers up his clothes and announces he is leaving Sofi and his children. He goes off with his young mistress.
If this is Cuaron’s memory film, he is not kind to his distant, uncaring father. This should have been more clearly defined. The father is an after-thought. Or that was Cuaron’s intention.
Cleo has a stronger presence then the anguished Sofi. Why her husband left her is never addressed. Her shrill reaction suggests that even though he is a doctor, his ignores his obligations to financially care for his wife and children. While the family is falling apart, Cleo meets a young man and it seems that she has found love but once she tells him she is pregnant, he abandons her. Fearing that being pregnant will mean she will lose her job, she knows she must tell Sofi.
Sofi reacts in a truly surprising fashion. She takes Cleo to her doctor and accepts the girl’s pregnancy. Cleo tries to find the young man and finally tracks him down. He refuses to acknowledge the coming baby is his.
ROMA starts to change its emotional direction as Cuaron realistically stages the city’s infamous response to a student march on the day of the Corpus Christi Festival. The student’s believed that a demonstration would show their displeasure at the government’s slashing of the University of Nuevo Leon’s budget. The students called for a massive rally. The march was blocked by police officers and riot police who did not allow the students to pass. What followed was the Corpus Christi Massacre where 120 people were killed.
ROMA’s defining sequence is the family’s vacation at an ocean-side resort. Once again, the children do not obey their mother or Cleo, who has the task of following the children into the water.
Instead of Sofi, who seems disinterested in her children, or the selfish Sr Antonio who cares nothing for his children, it is Cleo who holds Curaon’s interest and is the centerpiece of ROMA. She is the ideal servant: passive, shy and offers no opinions or interests. But she is, nevertheless, the film’s heroine.
If ROMA is indeed an autobiographical film, and it’s been widely reported that the set used Cuaron’s mementos and furniture from his childhood, the subterranean coda, his substitution of Cleo for Sofi as the family’s centerpiece and an absent, selfish father are the real memories that haunt the film.