Roma: An Ode to the Domestic Worker

by Elizabeth Kim on August 6, 2019

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) features slow pans, devastatingly beautiful cinematography, and a free-form, drifting storyline that is beholden only to the film’s authenticity. The camera is careful to show every inch of the autobiographical world Cuarón has reconstructed in loving detail. At the center of the story is Cleo, the domestic worker of a middle-class family living in Mexico City during the seventies. Cleo’s quiet, reserved nature is starkly juxtaposed against the open hostility of those who exploit her: her boss, Sra. Sofía, becomes verbally abusive when she and her children are abandoned by Sr. Antonio, while her boyfriend Fermín abandons her after she falls pregnant. Roma is Cuarón’s delicate portrayal of the all-encompassing, exhaustive nature of Cleo’s work, and by extension, her identity.

We first get a sense of the sheer magnitude of Cleo’s duties in the scene where the household gets ready for bed. Rather than following Cleo as she tidies up and turns out the lights, the camera seems to propel her forward—as if it has become yet another person urging Cleo to keep moving, serving, and providing. Cleo lingers precariously at the edge of the frame as the camera pushes relentlessly forward, representing that she is always at risk of falling behind and displeasing her employers. Indeed, as she cleans we begin to hear Sr. Antonio complaining about the state of the house; Cleo always seems to be scolded exactly when she is doing her job. The circularity of the camera movement as Cleo cleans around the perimeters of the apartment and proceeds down the winding staircase reinforces the ubiquitous nature of her presence; as a domestic worker, Cleo is expected to be everywhere at once. This scene is juxtaposed with the scene where Cleo wakes the children up for school, which occurs the following morning. Cleo is intimately aware of how each child wants to be treated, and as she tickles, hugs, and sings to them, each receives the individualized care they need. Cleo is the last person the children see before falling asleep and the first person they wake up to in the morning—in this way, Cleo is comparable to the sun. The camera moves slowly as it captures every innocent and childlike detail of the room; its leisurely pace immediately creates a sense of security, calm, and intimacy. This contrast in camera movement makes Cleo’s condition clear: her job of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children is all-consuming, but sometimes even her best can never be enough.

The film does not restrict itself to portraying Cleo working, however: it also follows her as she interacts with her boyfriend Fermín. In the scene where Cleo lets Fermín know that she is pregnant, Fermín keeps walking towards the truck full of his teammates; as he creates distance between himself and Cleo, Fermín moves towards what he clearly sees as his greater calling. The only time he approaches Cleo is to threaten her, and he ends their conversation by calling her a “servant” to let her know that he, too, perceived her as help, rather than as a girlfriend. Ultimately, it’s interesting to observe how similar this scene is to their love scene. Not only does Fermín wield a weapon, Cleo remains still while he is mobile, free to show off his martial arts skills, intrude her in her space, or make love to her. Their dialogue, too, revolves around Fermín’s ambitions and his life: the one time that Cleo attempts to add something to his story with the possibility of him being a father to her child, Fermín immediately rejects her. Though these scenes allow the audience a glimpse of the Cleo that exists beyond her job as a domestic worker, in her relationship with Fermín, Cleo is once again forced into the role of provider, as she is saddled with a child she does not want.

This confrontational scene with Fermín is also significant for its continuation of the theme of water and movement. Not only does the movement of his teammates in the background, running to the truck as it prepares to leave, create a sense of urgency and instability, it also forms a mirror image of the students running from the police in the furniture store scene. The visual of frenetic, unrestricted movement is most prominent in the penultimate ocean sequence, which itself recalls the first shot of the film. Here, the soapy suds that glided across the tiles as Cleo mopped the driveway have become magnified and multiplied in the massive, terrifying force of the ocean. The waves are as beautiful as they are relentless, and though Cleo actively fights against the ocean to reach the children, one could read the ocean as a metaphor for her being. She does, after all, fulfill a role that is comparable to a force of nature: a constant presence, omniscient in her intimate knowledge of each child’s needs, and by the end of the film, a guardian angel.

By obscuring the distinction between Cleo’s work and her person, the film prompts the audience to wonder, at the end of the day, how much of Cleo’s own identity remains. With his emphasis on the metaphor of water, however, Alfonso Cuarón prevents us from simply reading his film as a record of Cleo’s oppression. By aestheticizing the soap suds that characterize Cleo’s daily life and repeatedly harkening back to the metaphor of water, through the movement of people and of waves, Cuarón points out, in equal parts, the absurdity of the expectations we foist on domestic workers and the strength Cleo must have to rise up to such a task. It is through this lens that Cuarón’s film can be seen as an homage to the herculean task of being a domestic worker, of balancing the personal and the vocational, and of struggling when those things are one and the same.

Considering its content, it is fitting that Roma can be viewed within the domestic sphere of the house. How do viewers’ perceptions of Cleo change when they engage with her story within their own homes? I would offer the following answer: as our own homes become the cinema, and as we allow the full force of Cleo’s story to overwhelm us, the hierarchies that so rigidly defined her role in the film also dissolve. When we are both confined within our own homes and held captive to the screen, it’s almost as if Cleo’s story becomes our own.