‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceptively mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories”

  1. Arti – you make some interesting observations about the differences in experiencing the film in a theater vs. streaming on Netflix. Regardless of how one views it, the film’s artistic merits are undeniable. I have to wonder though if watching it on “TV” – and in pieces (ah, the luxury of being able to watch a film uninterrupted at home is not one that we currently have with a 5- month-old) – affected its potential impact on me. In some ways it felt more intimate, and I was able to digest it and meditate on it more by in essence expanding its runtime, but in other ways, I was never able to be fully engulfed by it (though that beach scene came close).

    Thanks, too, for sharing the personal anecdote.

    For what it’s worth, my spin:


    1. David,

      I don’t have a 5-month-old at home, but watching Cleo serving the family meal, I was prompted to pause the film and make a trip to the kitchen. All subliminal. Indeed, that’s the pro and con of streaming a movie at home. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I checked, and this film is right now playing in several theaters in my own county!! So how can I not make the effort? It’s surely a divine arrangement that I read your post in time to be able to take advantage of the opportunity. 🙂

    Thank you for an engaging review, which makes me want to see it, the most important part!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gretchen,

      I hope you’ll find the effort worthwhile. Don’t miss it on the big screen. It’s good that you still have it playing in theatres somewhere within reasonable distance. Again, thanks for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s wonderful that you were able to speak with your own special person from childhood. And how inspirational, that she’s doing so well. I’ve been very lucky, healthwise, but I’ve resolved to make a few changes in the coming year — no sense depending just on luck!

    I checked, and was astonished to find that Roma played in Houston, too. Unfortunately, it opened on the 7th and is gone, now. I just checked out Netflix. Maybe I should join and give it a try for the free month that they offer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Linda,

      You’re right in saying that’s my ‘own special person from childhood’. She had been my nanny since I was a preschool kid all the way to my jr. high years before I came to Canada. She’s one strong woman. As for Roma, it’s just been shortlisted in the upcoming Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. It’s said to be a frontrunner. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it. You’ll never know… theatres might show it again when the Academy Awards show draws near.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I saw it tonight. Did I tell you this would be the first time ever for me going to a movie theater alone? It was a little odd to be watching such a movie at Christmas when feel-good, cheery ones are more popular. But I was awfully glad I did, and really, the ending was the happiest part of the movie for me.

    Cleo’s character was loving and lovable. It was interesting to me that the New Yorker reviewer said that Cuaron had treated Cleo as a sort of anonymous person without a life or opinions of her own apart from her role as a servant. But I think that is exactly the perspective the children would have! And the lack of talkativeness on Cleo’s part was just her personality; some of us know that “still waters run deep.”

    I thought the pervasive theme of dog poop, not to mention the licking-hands friendliness of many dogs in the movie, and their apparent uselessness, was symbolic of the behavior of the two men in the movie, their creation of messes that the women had to deal with. I was reminded of the book A Thousand Splendid Suns in that both stories tell of women who are not peers, yet nevertheless are able to provide invaluable support for one another against the destructive forces in their world – and in both cases, men. At least the male driver for the family seems to be an okay guy 🙂

    One symbolic detail I also noticed was the giant crab claw hanging over the family eating their ice cream somewhat morosely at the seaside resort.

    I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time, and will surely want to watch it again. Thanks again, Arti, for being the blogger-instigator!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gretchen,

      I’m excited to know I’ve instigated a ‘first’ in your lifelong experience 🙂 But don’t you find watching a movie alone makes you more focused, no need to make conversations and socialize. And you’re right, this is not a film to put you in festive mood, but the ending is gratifying. That deeper sense of fulfillment is more welcoming I think.

      I agree with your dog poop observation (and parallel), you’ve said it. We’re not generalizing, but specifically having the two men in mind. Not all men, just those two in context. The driver is most helpful in rushing into the hospital first to alert the staff.

      Upon your mention, I went to check out that New Yorker review. I find it represents a view that’s very culturally bound. From a ‘first world’ perspective, an outsider looking in would call for the democratizing of another society, concerned about the class system, the voicelessness of those in the lower echelon of social order. Well, I feel his Proustian comparison is more appropriate here. This a cinematic rendering of Cuarón’s childhood memory, a tribute to 3 significant others, yes, all women, and the most prominent one being from a subservient class, the maid and nanny of his family. And the most important of all, within such a social ordering, genuine love can be found. Remembrance of things past, not a socio/political commentary and critique.

      Which leads me to your appreciation of Cleo’s ‘lack of talkativeness’. I always think loquaciousness is overrated in our society. Just look at the natural restraint Cleo has exercised, maybe her quiet personality ought to be credited, upon seeing the father on the street with another woman and just silently absorbed the knowledge and implications, in contrast to the boy (cousin?) pointing out right in front of the son, “that’s your dad”, prompting the son to be defensive and sustains a more hurtful wound.

      It probably won’t be in theatres for long but you sure can watch it again on Netflix. Again, thanks for coming back to the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles. Reading comments like yours is what makes Ripple fun and satisfying. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree wholeheartedly about the cultural bondage of some viewpoints. I think the reviewer is the one who has the stunted view of Cleo, as though she can’t be a whole person unless we see her contemplating abortion, or having political opinions. People who wrote that “nothing happens” in the first hour of the film also denigrate the critical importance of “mundane” acts of love that form a foundation for our lives. Cleo is not “voiceless,” but speaks with those actions that are louder than words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s obvious the films like this aren’t for everyone. Hope you’ll enjoy it for its artistic value and it just might stir up some ripples of memories for you too! 🙂


  6. I would love to see this in a theatre but I’m very glad it’s on netflix and I’ll check it out based on your recommendation.

    But what really made me smile here is that you made contact with your family’s nanny, that she is still going strong. That call must have meant the world to her — and I suspect to you, as well. That’s a wonderful gift for you both.


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