Water comes over the screen in waves for long minutes as the film opens. Offscreen, we hear the scrubbing of a straw bristle brush, as soapsuds float in and out of the frame, and at last the shot widens to reveal a young woman, tin bucket in one hand, long-handled squeegee in the other.
The tiled area under the brush is the carport of a home in one of the older parts of Mexico City, and if you’re a Mexican viewer you’ll know without thinking that the person with the bucket is a servant, doing the daily morning clean-up. You’ll know her occupation even before you really see her face because she is dark-skinned and too poorly dressed to be anything else in a house of that size, and because she exudes an air of calm and ingrained patience. What you won’t necessarily realize is that she, Cleo, is the protagonist of the film, because no Mexican film, other than the farcical and offensive comedies featuring la India Maria, has ever had a household servant at its center.
(It is only later that we’ll understand that what Cleo is so busily scrubbing away is the filthiest of all filth: dog shit, supplied in large quantities by Borras, a cheerful mutt who is the house dog, but not exactly the house pet. American-style pets didn’t really exist in Mexico back in 1970, when the film begins.)
For an American viewer—or at least for those viewers who have never met or been a domestic employee, known anyone who employs a full- or part-time servant, or hired a woman to provide domestic help—reading the character of Cleo, and by extension those of her employers, is possibly even more complicated. But start by looking carefully at the house: it is in the no longer elegant Roma neighborhood. Large but not enormous, and somewhat run-down, it’s certainly not luxurious. In addition to Cleo and her best friend, the household cook, seven people live here: four children, who share two bedrooms; their father, who is a doctor, and his wife, a chemist; and the wife’s mother. The furniture, heavy and dark, most likely belongs to the wife’s mother, as, in fact, the whole house probably does. (How do I know this? Because in the 1960s professionals like Cleo’s employers lived in newer, more comfortable houses in the suburbs, or in apartments that were cheaper and easier to care for.)
This is the house that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Roma, grew up in. Or at least it’s the recreation, meticulous to the point of madness, of that house. And this is the story of Cuarón’s memory of a turbulent time in his childhood. The movie is shot parallel to the action, as if the camera were the ghost of Cuarón revisiting his childhood and…
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