“In the end, we women are all alone, no matter what they tell you.”
It’s a shocking statement by Senora Sofia, who is drunk and demoralized knowing her husband Fernando is never coming back for his family. The gravity of these words stayed with me long after the scene ended and the credits stopped rolling for Roma.
Roma has been called a movie that says everything and nothing. I understand why after watching this latest film by the Oscar-winning director of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón. Some say it may be Cuarón’s best work yet. But no one seems more surprised to hear this than Cuarón himself, who says the film definitely represents a changing of the guard for Hollywood.
I couldn’t agree more as I consider three things: the film’s unorthodox storyline, its unique perspective and the cast of unlikely characters. While some of my friends complained these same elements made it difficult to watch this very slow-moving film, I think they are also the key to Cuarón’s success.
So, I went back to Senora Sofia’s words about the fate of all women and thought: wouldn’t it be interesting to consider just how different Cuarón’s film is from classic formulaic films like Gone With the Wind?
As the Oscar winner for Best Film in 1939, Gone With the Wind is based on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell. Directed by Victor Fleming, it was the highest grossing film and lead the box-office in the twentieth century in real dollars.
Roma follows in the footsteps of Gone With the Wind, also garnering ten Oscar nominations and some pretty surprising thematic ties of comparative relevance, not to mention the crossover subjects of WomanScape’s discussion this week around slavery and gender.
(Photo credit: Southinpopculture.com)
It’s certainly easy to spot old paradigms around the slave narrative in Gone With the Wind. Movies in the 1930s and 40s tried to soften the slave-owner history, as if the kind treatment by whites for their “mammies” made it okay. This certainly played up the “romance” part of the film – which feels very uncomfortable now when you consider the history of the South and the Civil War.
Unlike Gone With the Wind, Roma is upfront about domestic slavery as Cuarón exposes the same white excuses that existed in Mexico during the civil uprising of the 1970s.
His upper-middle-class family mistreats their domestic workers and the context is heightened by the larger civil unrest in Mexico. In a pivotal scene, the U.S.-backed Institutional Revolutionary Party (which put pressure on the Mexican government) used trained paramilitaries to kill dozens of peaceful protestors.
However, Cuarón is careful not to focus on the politics unlike many Hollywood movies do where the Civil War (Lincoln, The Free State of Jones) or slavery (The Help, Runaway Slave, Beloved) is central to the action. Instead, he avoids sweeping scenes of physical and emotional carnage and plot-driven twists. This actually makes the few rioting scenes in Roma seem even more intense and we’re left to imagine what we don’t see.
The characters and choice of actors are also very interesting. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) is the highly emotional, central character in Gone With the Wind who wants to protect her father’s prosperous plantation and her privileged station in life. When the Confederate Army is defeated, the plantation burns and Scarlett loses everything, including Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who gives up on her.
Photo credit: House Beautiful
Both Vivian and Clark had huge box office draws and very staging appearances. Their roles and words were so scripted that when Rhett ushered his famous parting words to Scarlett at the end of the film, “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” he had to get permission to use the word ‘damn’ because Paramount worried about offending audiences.
Today’s movie-goers don’t want this kind of arms-length drama. Cuarón’s internal conflict is appreciated despite the film’s dreamy scenes and slow-moving action. They’re meant to convey Cuarón’s childhood memories growing up in Mexico. Wide panoramic scenes are done in black and white, and the audience sees the rare closeup when Cuarón’s wants to show us something about Cleo.
Photo credit: Filmjabber.com
There’s a provocative balance and symmetry especially when we first meet Cleo Gutierrez (Yalitza Aparicio), the family maid and nanny. She is on all fours scrubbing the excrement from the family dog whose pooped all over the garage alleyway. It sets the tone.
Again and again, we return to the stink when Fernando leaves his wife, the fighting among the kids escalates, Sofia drinks too much and hits Cleo, violence erupts in the streets and Cleo’s baby is stillborn. The soapy water from her scrub brush is muddied by Sofia, who struggles to balance motherhood with her white privileged upbringing.
Photo credit: Deadline.com
Sofia is abusive and dramatic like Scarlett O’Hara’s, sucking up the air and joy that Cleo brings. Cuarón likely cast Yalitza Aparicio, a complete unknown who isn’t even an actress, knowing she would represent the faceless multitude of domestic workers who seem invisible to their employers. Yalitza only auditioned because her sister couldn’t, so Yalitza went to tell her what it was like.
There’s a tenderness in Cleo’s face, resembling the many women around the world who carry their families without help from the men they love. Cuarón dabbles in this world, paying tribute to them. He moves past the survival theme in Gone With the Wind suggesting our relationships are complex but filled with possibility and hope. We see this with Sofia who wants to love Cleo but doesn’t really know how. It’s difficult because she clings to insecurities and privileged class system.
In the end, despite the challenges, we realize these women aren’t alone. They have each other. My girlfriends and family of women remind me of this every day – even when I don’t understand life and love. Cuarón’s Roma ushers in this raw vision that we don’t have to understand and the story can be open-ended and malleable, like life.
Yalitza is enjoying this unexpected turn of events in her life. She had just completed a teaching program when she auditioned for the part of Cleo and was picked from a casting pool of 800+ women. She’s yet to use her degree. There’s nothing like life to show us how easily the winds can change.