In lapping waves and dirty dishwater; Katie Goh explores how Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma uses water to depict feminine labour, in both epic scale and domestic spaces.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma opens with a slow, close-up shot of a drenched stone-paved floor. We hear the comfortingly domestic scratch of a broom’s bristles pushing the water along, lapping against the tiles like a tiny ocean. As the soap suds clear, the water becomes a mirror and we can see the sky. An aeroplane moves between two buildings. It’s this opening frame that reveals the heart of Cuarón’s deeply personal film about his childhood in 1970s Mexico City. How can dirty water used to scrub a floor contain the heavens? How can the domestic be epic and the epic be domestic?
Cuarón recently said that with Roma he wanted to “honour the four elements: water, wind, fire, and earth”. Three are in the opening shot – the stone of the floor, the dirty cleaning water, the heavenly sky. Fire is introduced later as a forest set alight on New Year’s Eve. The four elements give Roma its structure. Cuarón has spoken at length about how shooting the film was an organic, largely improvisatory process: the film was shot chronologically, no actors and very few crew members ever saw a script, rehearsals were only allowed to practice cinematography (Cuarón is credited as cinematographer as well as director, co-producer, writer and co-editor), and many takes were done in one. Roma’s narrative moves like a memory, flows like a stream of consciousness. Ironically, what gives the film its structure is that amorphous thing without shape – water.
The woman pushing the soapy water in the film’s opening shot is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in her first acting role), a young, indigenous domestic worker to a middle-class family in Colonia Roma, Mexico City’s affluent district. Her life, like so many female domestic workers’ lives, is submerged in water. We see her hands plunged in grey dishwater, wringing out the family’s clothes, mopping tiles, boiling water for tea; water evaporating of pots turning to steam and stinging eyes. In Roma, water and labour are interchangeable, and that labour is always in the hands of female characters. Alongside Cuarón’s slow shots of Cleo working, Roma’s sound design captures the hum-drum everyday domestic sounds: water lapping the stone driveway and dripping onto the house’s roof, from clothes drying in the Mexican sun.
If Cleo’s work life consists of water, so soon will her personal. Cleo and her friend’s boyfriend’s cousin, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), ditch the movies to spend an afternoon together. Post-coital, in a hotel room, Fermín takes a shower curtain rail and treats Cleo, and the audience, to a naked martial arts performance that he says focuses his mind and keeps him on a straight path. Cleo watches bemused from bed, underneath a painting of a choppy sea. Cleo, and we, don’t know it yet, but she has just become pregnant and, with some foreshadowing in the shape of an acrylic pathetic fallacy, Cleo’s life is about to become as turbulent as the water above her.
For the festive season, Cleo and the family travel to rural Mexico, to stay with the family’s wealthy relatives. During the New Year’s Eve party, Cleo slips away to where the other domestic workers are celebrating. She’s given pulque to toast the new year – “to a beautiful 1971 and your baby’s health!”. A nearby dancer oversteps, knocks into Cleo, and her clay cup cracks on the tiled floor. Pulque, the consistency and colour of milk, is spilt. It’s another foreshadowing omen. That night, a forest fire starts, raging beside the house. Water is nearly not enough to put it out.
In the new year, abandoned by Fermín when he finds out about the baby, Cleo goes to confront him. The ground is a sludge of muddy water that becomes continually drier as she moves closer to where Fermín is practising his martial arts. There, the earth is dusty, hot, dry, with no water in sight. It’s a place of male bonding, women kept to the sidelines. When Cleo attempts to speak to Fermín, he is as hot-tempered and unforgiving as the dried-up ground, threatening her and their baby.
In 1971, government-trained paramilitaries attacked a student protest during Mexico’s Corpus Christi Massacre. In Roma, the massacre happens when Cleo and the family’s grandmother (Verónica García) are shopping for a baby crib. As rioting breaks out, two students are chased into the store, followed by paramilitaries. A gun is pointed at Cleo and as the camera pans up, we see the hand holding it belongs to Fermín. We realise his endearing martial arts performances were in fact paramilitary training. Cleo’s water breaks during this moment of betrayal.
While white women’s pregnancies and labours are so often fetishised, a phenomenon dating back to the Victorian era when the “angel of the house” ideal image of blissful, domestic motherhood was popularised, women of colour were historically the ones nursing, rearing, and bringing up these white babies. When Cleo becomes pregnant, she is terrified to tell her employer and woman of the house, Sofía (Marina De Tavira), for fear of being fired. For Cleo, pregnancy is a burden that she hasn’t asked for and, in a predominantly Catholic country in the 1970s, abortion is not an option and, if it was, certainly not a safe one. Cleo’s labour is difficult and painful, not least because she spends most of it stuck in traffic. In Roma’s most devastating scene, her baby is born dead.
After Cleo loses the baby, Sofía invites Cleo to join the family on a vacation to the seaside. By the sea, Sofía finally tells her children that their father has abandoned them. In what could perhaps be considered Roma’s climax (although in a film like Roma where the narrative moves like a stream, the term “climax” is used loosely), Cleo, who can’t swim, wades into the waves and pulls two of the children, who have gone out too far, from the sea. Water, the thing that structures her life as a domestic worker and as a woman, threatens to sweep her away as she battles through the tides. Finally, she finds the children and together they struggle back to the beach. Cuarón revealed that this long scene was filmed in only one take – and it’s the moment that gives Roma its arc. The water that lapped against tiles in Roma’s first frame is the same water of the sea that batters Cleo. This water is both small, domestic, safe, and large, wild, epic; it gives life and takes it away in the same sweep. Whether it’s the water of the cleaning bucket or vastness of the ocean, it gives the same purpose to Cleo – to survive it.
On the beach as she is embraced by the family that she is a surrogate mother to, Cleo cries that she “didn’t want her” own baby. Water is catharsis, as is coming close to death. The white middle-class children she has saved reply: “We love you, Cleo!” It’s an emotional ending but it’s also an uncomfortable one, with the implication that Cleo has chosen the white family she works for rather than her own. Ultimately, at the end of Roma, Cleo’s domestic labour for the family seals her fate, rather than the labour to produce her own family. [The racial and classicist implications of this ending is currently being debated by Mexican film critics, much more qualified to weigh in with a moral and ethical judgment on this ending than myself. I would point to Pablo Calvi’s dissection of the colonial director’s gaze for The Believer as an excellent starting point].
In Roma’s last shot, Cuarón shows the same image as the film’s beginning – a plane moving between two buildings in the heavens – but this time it’s not a reflection in the water. We can see things a little clearer now. As the plane moves overhead, Cleo climbs the many steps to the roof with a bundle of the family’s washing to clean and hang up. Soon her hands will once again be going through the familiar rhythm and ritual of scrubbing in a basin of dirty water. While she, and the audience, might see things a little clearer, Cleo’s domestic life is the same at the end of the film as at the start. After all, a woman’s work is never done.
Katie Goh (@johnnys_panic) is a freelance arts writer and editor based in Edinburgh. Her words have popped up in The Guardian, Sight and Sound, Dazed, The Independent, The Skinny, Huck, and more.