Roma, the latest film of the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (it can be seen in India in Netflix) has earned rave reviews and is an Oscar contender. It stands out as an unusual film defying the common genres. It is the story of Cleo, the live-in maid from the Mexican indigenous community Mixtec serving a wealthy white family. She toils from early morning till late nightpreparing food, cleaning floors,washing dishes and ironing clothes. She looks after the four kids in the house with motherly affection. She talks very little, contains her emotions and works silently. She does not rebel nor does she protest when the world is unfair to her. The shy and naïve Cleo has no big expectations or ambitions or even dreams. She accepts the life of domestic help as fixed for her in the social hierarchy. During her day off, she goes out with her boyfriend. But he runs away when she becomes pregnant. She loses the child but takes it in stoically and fatalistically. She never wavers from her devotion and loyalty to the family, which treats her with kindness.
Sofia, the lady of the house in which Cleo works, also undergoes suffering caused by her unfaithful husband who runs away with a lover. She confesses to Cleo, “ No matter what they tell you, we the women, are always alone”.
The story is set in the upscale neighbourhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico city and the Mexico of seventies which had witnessed student protests with fatal consequences.
The film is a plain but intense portrayal of everyday life of the maid. It is like a documentary without big drama, suspense or mystery. No digression with sub plots. No narco trafficking gangster violence. No Latin American magical realism. No Argentine psychological complexity. But the film packs powerful emotions and poignant moments in subtle and discreet ways. It has elaborate and vivid details of physical work of the maid and the mental turmoil in the family.
The film is a masterpiece of Alfonso Cuaron who has based the story on his own childhood memories. He says it is very personal to him and at the same time it is about the family, the city, the country and about humanity.
Roma is a tribute to the maid Libo Rodriguezwho used to work in Cuaron’s house like Cleo in the film. He has, in fact, dedicated the film to her. He searched for almost a year for the right person to act as Cleo and found YalitzaAparacio, a twenty four year old primary school teacher who lived in a one room flat with her family in rural Mexico. She had no professional acting experience. But she has fit the character perfectly and has left a lasting impression with her spontaneous acting and natural demeanour. Her mother is still working as a domestic worker. Her father left home when she was in her teens and her two youngest siblings were still toddlers, leaving her mother to bring up four children.
The movie is in black and white. The actors are non-professionals. The dialogues are in Spanish except when the two maids talk in their indigenous Mixtec language.
Cuaron is the first Mexican and Latin American to win Oscar award for the best director in 2013 for the Hollywood film “Gravity”. His other Mexican film “ Y tu mama tambien” was a hit commercially and a cultural shocker. He has done a Harry Potter film too.
After Cuaron, two other Mexican film directors Alejandro González Iñárritu ( won twice in 2014 and 2015) and Guillermo del Toro (2017) have won Oscar awards. These “three amigos” have raised the profile of Mexican film industry which is in resurgence these days.
The success of Roma has now made Aparicio famous. She appeared in the cover of the Vogue magazine (December edition) wearinga Gucci dress,next to the title “In tiu’n ntav’i” – “A star is born” – in the indigenous Mixtec language.
In a video released by Vogue, Aparicio said: “Certain stereotypes are being broken: that only people with a certain profile can be actresses or be on the cover of magazines.Other faces of Mexico are now being recognized. It is something that makes me happy and proud of my roots.”
This is the first time that an indigenous woman has become the heroine of a Mexican hit film and appeared in the cover page of a fashion magazine. Naturally there is jubilation and celebration in the Mexican indigenous community and especially among their women. Although indigenous Mexicanscomprise twenty percentof the population,theyare marginalized from public life and politics, and many live in poverty.This is true of most of the forty million indigenous people in Latin America spread out from Mexico to Chile. For the first time, an indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected as President in Bolivia in 2006. Inspired by his example, Rigoberta Mengchu stood in the presidential elections of Guatemala but did not make it.
Cuaron’s bold art movie celebrating the indigenous community has found its match in the revolutionary spirit of the new Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador who has got the film screened for the public for free in Los Pinos, the presidential palace on 13 december. He got the culture ministry to supply popcorn and soft drinks to the audience. Obrador has refused to move into the luxurious presidential mansion and has converted it into a museum for public to visit. He continues to live in his own modest residence. He has put the presidential plane on sale and travels by economy class in commercial flights. Hehas promised to give priority to emancipation of indigenous people, as part of his grand plan for the transformation of the country. He gained national exposure as an advocate for the rights of indigenous people when in 1996 he appeared on national TV drenched in blood following confrontations with the police for blocking oil wells to defend the rights of local indigenous people impacted by pollution.On 16 December, President Obrador attended an indigenous ceremony seeking the blessing of Mother Earth for the Maya tourist train project.
Roma, the film about the native Indian maid, ends with a message from the real Indiawith the words “Shantih shantih shantih”.