It’s really too bad the Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t allow non-English films to be considered for Best Picture. At least director Alfonso Cuarón and his Netflix film, Roma, won Golden Globes for Best Director of a Motion Picture and Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th annual ceremony last Sunday.
We all know who Cuarón is, right? The hugely successful multiple Oscar winning director of Gravity and Children of Men, who is only ever overshadowed by his mega-successful Latin contemporaries Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (tactlessly known as the Three Amigos in showbiz). But Roma is a far cry from his other highly commercial films such as Harry Potter or Great Expectations and from his well-received fantasy fare, such as Pan’s Labrynth. It’s an autobiographical film of his own experiences and upbringing shot in black and white, thus we get to know the filmmaker quite personally.
Even though it takes place in Mexico, as a Latinx of Dominican descent born and raised in the United States, I felt nostalgia, as parts of the film took me back to summers spent in the Dominican Republic. My Latinx friends who saw it agreed with the sentiment. But its relatability to some of us who’ve lived south of the U.S. border or visited family in the Caribbean is only one reason the film is important. It’s also an homage to the woman who raised him – not his mother but his maternal rock— as well as a beautifully shot commentary on class and ethnic discrimination and a political history lesson. It deals with both every-day issues set in an authentic depiction of Mexico and to top it off, there’s no drug violence or cartels! Here are four reasons we stan Roma.
Its portrait of class division
The story takes place over a year in the early 1970s in a Mexico City neighborhood and centers around a young woman of Mixtec origin named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicios in her acting debut) who is the caretaker of an upper middle class family. Mixtec is the third largest indigenous group in Mexico, and Roma reveals the discrimination toward her people and touches on how the government stole their land. Through servant Cleo, who still occasionally speaks in her native Mixtec tongue, audiences glimpse the real-life struggles faced by native peoples, who are considered second-class citizens (as are Afro-Latinos, but that’s a different movie). These biases are often subtle. In one scene, Cleo is seen to be getting too cozy with one of the children, she is ordered off to fetch tea. A headline in The Independent says it succinctly: “Roma isn’t just an Oscar Contender – it’s an expose on Mexico’s Caste System”
Sadly, the huge class divide along ethno-cultural lines is rampant in Latin-American countries (FYI: The region overall also has the most extreme inequality gap in the world).
Its historical precision
One of the coolest aspects of the film is the documentary-like portrayal of 1970s Mexico. In addition to illustrating a classist society, Roma lets us experience the music, culture and politics of the time. These are often presented as subtle details — posters of the World Cup hang in the bedrooms, while posters of the ruling party and president line the streets. Then there are moments where Cleo sings along to popular songs of the period, such as Juan Gabriel’s “No Tengo Dinero.”
The film shows a society that is fed up with its 40-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who retained power since 1929 through rigged elections, by portraying the June 1971 Corpus Christie massacre, during which at least 120 protesting students were slaughtered. Since student unrest erupted in 1968 (similar to the US, France and elsewhere), the PRI had begun Mexico’s so-called Dirty War. With help from the CIA, Mexico’s government trained paramilitary groups to rape, murder and pillage revolutionaries in the countryside, away from the public and press, and infiltrate student groups to stoke violence during protests. In Roma, Fermin, a young man Cleo dates, is into martial arts and is seen training alongside others in a secretive paramilitary force. Though there had been other horrible political violence, such as 1968’s Tlatelolco massacre, the Corpus Christi Massacre truly awakened more people to the reality of the government oppression.
Its relatable scenes
Despite covering the tragic event, two-thirds of Roma is a straight-up family drama, which makes it relatable. There is an authenticity to the life in Mexico City that evokes the Latinx experience. Scenes with Cleo handwashing clothing outside is a reality many Latin Americans have today and is a vivid memory to those who travel back to their parents’ lands. As a child, I would accompany my aunt while she hand-washed my clothes on the roof with just a huge bucket of water and hand soap. Washing machines seem easily accessible, but many in Latin America are not so privileged.
The movie is shown from Cleo’s perspective. Like Cleo, many immigrants come to the states as domestic workers. They make connections and find jobs for family members or people from their areas. They build new communities in the areas where they migrate. But there is always an insider-outsider dilemma at play for nannies and live-in help. Cleo and the mother, Sofia, can connect as oppressed women, but their economic inequality and ethnic differences compound emotional estrangement. Nevertheless, the hired help are ones raising the children hands-on, and Cleo sees them as a family of her own. Silent frames featuring the young domestic workers with the kids project their tight bonds. Since about 90 percent of the film is from Cuarón’s memory, it’s clear that Cleo represents Cuarón’s real-life nanny, who was there for him more than his own mom. This, of course, happens in many cases but is rarely discussed.
Its stunning cinematography
Roma is a visual feast to behold. Cuarón’s storytelling is done through pictures, with each frame carefully thought out. Black-and-white imagery lends an authoritative sense of the documented past, but instead of being grainy, it is crisp, almost painterly. This is because Cuarón shot in digital color and then added all in the shades of gray afterward with the latest software magic.
You can catch Roma on Netflix.