Roma and the Entrapment of Domestic Servitude

In the opening scene of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma, a plane crosses the sky, reflected in a pool of water on tiles. This shot seems to last a lifetime until the camera pans to a woman mopping the floor, enclosed in the side passage of the large townhouse she is cleaning. The contrast between the two images is stark: the freedom of travelling the whole world, set against an image of a woman trapped as much by her chores as she is the shot she is framed in. Already, director Alfonso Cuarón is indicating a sense of enclosure and entrapment that will pervade the whole of the film.

Roma follows Cleo, a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City, against the backdrop of the political turmoil of the early 1970s. It has been praised for its indigenous representation (Cleo’s character is Mixtecan and the actress who plays her, Yalitza Aparicio, is Mixtec and Trique) as well as its exploration of a profession which by definition tends to blur into the background in media: domestic workers. Roma puts Cleo front and centre of the story, focusing as much on the mundane as it does on the dramatic. Throughout the film, there is a deep sense that Cleo is trapped not only by her class and financial situation, but by her relationships too.

Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube

In an early scene, Cleo sings along to the radio while she is hand washing clothes: ‘When I tell you that I’m poor, you won’t ever smile again… I long to have it all and lay it at your feet… But I was born poor, and you will never love me’. We are reminded of this refrain a few scenes later when Fermín, Cleo’s lover and the father to her unborn child, calls her a ‘fucking servant’ and threatens violence to both her and the baby if she ever tries to find him again. Fermín is also ostensibly working class, but he has been training with what we later find out is Los Halcones, a black operations army group. Though we only briefly see Fermín again during one of the films most dramatic scenes, I would argue that his membership of this group allows him to transcend his class somewhat, whereas Cleo can neither escape her life of domestic servitude or her burgeoning motherhood. Fermín had initially seemed like a way out, but his abandonment of Cleo dashed those hopes. He has the option to step away from both parenthood and his financial situation – opportunities that are not afforded to Cleo. 

Cuarón seems to suggest in his film that women of all classes are trapped by expectations and the decisions of men. Sofía, Cleo’s employer, delivers a memorable line after her husband leaves the family: ‘women are always alone’. While Sofía is obviously far freer than Cleo thanks to her wealth, there are stark comparisons to how the men in the film behave compared to the women. Both Fermín and Sofía’s husband Antonio have lives outside of the home: Fermín has his training and Antonio travels to Canada, works in a hospital, and has a mistress. Cleo and Sofía seem to exist only within a domestic sphere, regardless of the latter’s comparable freedom. When she is abandoned by Antonio, who stops sending her money for the children, she has to start working at a publishing house to get by. Of course, this is a far less demanding job than Cleo’s domestic work, but I believe Sofía’s situation also speaks to the precarity and entrapment women face due to patriarchy – Sofía’s stability is taken away because her husband leaves her, even though she is middle class.

Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube

Although there is an element of solidarity between Cleo and Sofía in some scenes, and she is often treated as part of the family, it is always almost immediately made clear with an instruction to go and fetch ice cream or iron some clothes, that she is first and foremost the help. After Cleo’s baby is delivered stillborn, representing the film’s traumatic emotional climax, Sofía invites her to come to the coast with her and the children, ostensibly to relax and recharge. However, during the trip, it becomes clear that while this may be part of the reason she was invited, the main attraction of inviting Cleo is that Sofía has someone to help look after the children and support her when she announces that their father has abandoned them.

Her class and financial situation have trapped her in domestic servitude, but she is also trapped by her love for the family. This is seen most starkly in the film’s most famous scene, used on posters and in publicity material. When Sofía leaves Cleo with three of the children on the beach, two of them decide to go into the water. As Cleo helps their younger brother towel off, they start to go further out, and she calls to them several times before starting to run towards the sea. Despite not being able to swim, she launches herself into the water, pulling both of them out. The three collapse onto the beach, with Sofía and the two other children joining them in an embrace of shivering, relieved bodies. This, the film’s most identifiable image, may seem like a beautiful depiction of connection and Cleo’s position as part of the family. However, director Alfonso Cuarón has spoken about his own intentions with the image: “that embrace is as much a hug as a cage.” To me, it seems like Cleo’s dedication to her baby girl transfers to the family after she is stillborn – she couldn’t save her baby, but she saves two of her employer’s children. Throughout the film, the children have treated her like a second mother, and now the surrogacy seems to have been formalised. She is willing to risk her own life for them – the kind of self-sacrificial love we assume only a mother can harbour. Still, this love is a trap – Cleo is essentially defined by her role as maid and the commitments, both physical and emotional, that demands, just as motherhood would have come to define her had her baby been alive. She doesn’t get the autonomy to define herself, instead trapped within the constraints of domestic servitude and working-class womanhood more generally.

Cuarón’s own experience of growing up with a maid, Libo, greatly shaped the film. In interviews, he has spoken of their deep bond, how he called her ‘mamá’ and she took him to the cinema. Maids were (and still are) a very common part of many households in Mexico, and through Roma, Cuarón gives them a voice while also illustrating their position as trapped by their class, work and also the bonds they share with the families they serve. Roma seems to be Cuarón’s way of working through his own complex feelings surrounding his own Cleo – that while she was deeply loved by him, there was a sense of exploitation there. The children in Roma clearly adore Cleo, but they are just as comfortable giving her instructions and being waited upon hand and foot by her as their parents are.

Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube

Roma, therefore, is just as much an exploration of entrapment as it is love and connection. We are reminded throughout, through shots in which Cleo always seems to be enclosed in contrast to wide open spaces, as well as through her relationships, that Cleo has no social mobility and will probably always be a maid, just like her mother who we meet briefly. The film leaves its audience stuck between its heart-warming displays of affection and connection transcending class lines, and the realisation that these connections are just as trapping as they are tender.

In the film’s final scene, Cleo returns from the family’s eventful holiday and walks up metal stairs to the roof, carrying bundles of laundry. She is firmly planted in the domestic sphere again, doing chores, the wide-open sky behind her, hinting at a freedom she will never experience.

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube

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