Roma and the Hidden Wounds of Mexico

I’ve heard all too many stories like the one depicted in this remarkable film.

In a still from Roma, a woman clings to her husband beside their car, and a maid comforts their child outside the gate of their home.
Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is coming to Netflix on Dec. 14, and I’m very sorry. Don’t get me wrong! I’m delighted that the film, a masterpiece about the life of a domestic worker in the heart of Mexico City in the early ’70s, will now reach a truly global audience. What I regret is that so many people will forgo a trip to the movie theater in order to watch a film that deserves to be seen and heard in the grandest possible setting.

Roma is a technical marvel. Cuarón has recreated the Mexico City of his childhood in obsessive detail, down to the posters on the wall, the comic books, the language, the clothes, and, miraculously, the urban landscape that is now mostly gone thanks to cultural negligence and irresponsible urban development. The film is spectacular in the most cinematographic sense of the word. The frame hardly seems to contain what happens within it: Dozens of people come and go on different planes, each adding something to a canvas so enthralling and rich that it made me think of Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana. The film’s sounds are equally atmospheric—and perhaps the main reason why Roma should be experienced in a movie theatre. The voices, like the maddening yet glorious cacophony of the Mexican capital, come from everywhere. Listen for every minuscule sound in the memorable sequence in a hospital, for example: Chaos is all around. The movie is omnipresent.

And yet, for all its technical prowess, what makes Cuarón’s movie perhaps the defining work of art of the past decade of Mexican cinema is the story at its heart and how accurately it reflects one of the hidden wounds of the country’s society. Roma tells the story of Cleo, a young woman from the southern state of Oaxaca who works with a family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Cleo, played by the outstanding newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, is quiet, caring, strong, but also naïve. She falls in love with Fermín, a soldierly type who impresses Cleo with the faux masculinity of martial arts theatrics. Cleo soon finds herself pregnant and then finds herself alone: Upon hearing the news, Fermín leaves her without a second thought. Cleo is left to carry on with the support of Sofía (a fierce Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family Cleo works for. Like Cleo’s Fermín, Sofía’s husband also abandons her and their children. The two women, alone in the face of male cowardice, manage to sustain themselves and the family they both nurture, in a moving sort of co-motherhood. In the end, in more ways than one, Sofía’s children quite literally owe both women (especially Cleo) their lives.

Roma’s portrayal of feminine might in the face of masculine weakness is all the more powerful, because it’s completely plausible. I can attest to its verisimilitude. Over the past six years, I have interviewed hundreds of Hispanic immigrants to the United States for a Univision series called La Mesa. I have found quite a few common threads over the course of these conversations with people who escaped difficult or dangerous situations in their home countries. Although this destructive cycle is, obviously, not exclusive to Mexican society, I’ve heard it recounted with an eerie regularity across generations: men and women who grew up without fathers, under the sole protection of their mothers or grandmothers.

I recently interviewed Yalitza Aparicio, the young Oaxacan schoolteacher who makes her stunning debut as an actress in Roma. She ended up as the lead in Roma by chance, after accompanying her sister, who sings well, to an audition in the town of Tlaxiaco in Oaxaca. Aparicio thought she’d give the process a shot and now finds herself the most celebrated Mexican actress in a generation. Aparicio has an uncannily expressive face, with a warm smile and dark, brown eyes with a language of their own. Cleo’s emotional magnetism is entirely Yalitza’s.

When I asked her about the role men play in Mexican society, Aparicio told me she knows many “similar cases” to what Cleo endures in Roma. “It’s something that just shouldn’t happen,” she told me. “Mothers shouldn’t have to raise kids solely by themselves. The responsibility should belong to both partners. The couple has to support each other. Women should not be left alone.”

I asked Aparicio why men like Fermín, her character’s vicious and abusive partner, still behave in such a way. “I have yet to comprehend that,” she told me, with a slight smile. “Sometimes I think it has to do with these ideas that we haven’t been able to untangle that a woman should be the only person responsible for the household or the children simply because she’s a woman and men should have more freedom.”

The two women at the core of this remarkable film transcend their men’s foibles, find solace in each other, and emerge from a violent city—and, in a thrilling scene, the ocean—wholly reborn. It truly is a sight to behold, preferably (sorry, Netflix) in front of the biggest screen available.