Themes and symbolism in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma

My love for Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma has veered into obsession. I have watched the film in full three times now and specific scenes many more times than that. I’m gobbling up articles and podcasts as fast as they’re being produced.

To capture the many ways Roma works its magic, I’ve decided to compile a list of the film’s thematic elements, recurring motifs, and symbolism, as well as some good old-fashioned trivia.

Please use the comment section to explore and challenge these items and to suggest your own.

Warning: This is a SPOILER zone. Don’t read on until you’ve seen the movie!

Astronauts

In a grand movie theater, the family watches the 1969 John Sturges film Marooned. As the clip from Marooned makes obvious, this film was a major influence on Cuaron’s Gravity. It’s fun to witness a younger version of Cuaron encounter such an inspiration for the first time.

During the sequence where the family visits wealthy friends in the country, a rich boy is seen in full astronaut gear walking through the forest. This image is contrasted with a shot of a poor boy walking through a muddy street with a bucket on his head during Cleo’s visit to Ramon’s village.

Baby Omens

In Roma‘s most gut-wrenching scene, Cleo gives birth to a stillborn baby after a traumatic labor. Her baby’s fate is hinted at a couple of times earlier in the film.

When she first visits the doctor and stops to look at the newborn infants in the maternity ward, an earthquake shakes the building. The scene ends with a lingering shot of a preemie enclosed in an incubator covered with rubble from the ceiling.

Later, at a New Years celebration with the rich family’s hired help, Cleo reluctantly accepts a mug of pulque to toast her pregnancy. Before she can drink, a nearby dancer bumps into her, sending the mug crashing to the floor. Cuaron cuts to a close-up of the shattered cup.

Background Stories

As in Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, the writer/director makes a point of highlighting background action that doesn’t directly relate to the main characters. He wants to show that we are following just one thread of a rich tapestry. Examples show up throughout the film, but a few stand out.

During the Corpus Christi Massacre, Cleo walks out of the frame but the camera stays behind on a sobbing woman cradling her murdered lover in her arms. This image, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta, also showed up in a similar scene in Cuaron’s Children of Men.

After Sofia, the family’s mother, tells her children that she and her father are splitting up, the family somberly shares an ice cream outside the restaurant. Behind them, a newly married couple celebrates their nuptials with a band and dancing guests. It’s an ironic juxtaposition suggesting that your worst day might be somebody else’s best, but also a simple slice of life on this day in this beach town.

In one of the film’s most powerful shots — one that could have served as the final image — Cleo takes a break from the laundry and lies head-to-head with young Pepe, playing dead on the rooftop of their home. The camera pans up and in the background you see nannies on a dozen other rooftops washing and hanging their own laundry. Roma is special for putting a woman like Cleo front and center, but this shot suggests that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of those women have stories worth telling.

Camerawork

Cuaron wanted a very specific look for Roma, and certain rules about camera movement, both to underscore that the film is a look at the past through the memories of somebody in the present. He shot in black and white, but in a crisp 65-millimeter digital format, so every frame is crystal clear and full of detail, not grainy the way you typically see B&W films.

He has the camera constantly moving, but always side to side, never pushing in to the characters. This offers a sort of “ghost eye view,” in which the viewer is observing but not participating in the action.

Cuaron makes use of his trademark long takes, whether filming simple dialogue or complex action. This contributes to the sense of the viewer inhabiting the same world as the characters. Cuaron says every cut requires you to reorient yourself as a viewer and re-establish the characters’ position in the frame. Subconsciously, this causes viewers to focus on the Who at the expense of the Where. His extended takes allow you to live in the space and appreciate all of the details.

Cars

The absentee father in Roma drives a massive Ford Galaxy that barely fits in the family’s walled-in driveway. The idea of a car too big for the house suggests the father aspires to something bigger and better than his middle class family life. We are first introduced to the father with a series of close-up shots from within the car, as he manipulates the controls, snuffs out a cigarette, and painstakingly fits it into the tightest of spaces. He pays more attention to the car than his family.

When he leaves them, the car remains as a mammoth reminder of his absence. The mother treats the car with increasing recklessness. Finally, at the end of the film, when she has accepted that her marriage is over, she buys a car that actually fits in the garage and sells the Galaxy.

The car works nicely as a metaphor, but it wasn’t the writer’s invention. Cuaron says it is pulled directly from his actual childhood experiences.

Class/Race

The dynamic of a poor domestic worker in a middle class family’s home is hardly unique to Mexico in the 1970s. That’s a class dynamic playing out all over the world forever. Roma explores those class differences by depicting Cleo’s role within the family — sitting on the floor next to the couch on TV night before being dispatched to get tea. It also spends time in both the poorer cities outside the capital and the extensive farm land of the wealthy family during the holiday visit.

The New Years party provides some of the starkest examples of class division. While the families party in the main house, the servants hold their own revelry in the ground level quarters — your traditional upstairs/downstairs division. Cleo passes between the two spaces, not entirely fitting in either. When a forest fire encroaches on the family’s property, the servants line up in a bucket chain while the rich family members sip their wine and take in the spectacle. One privileged man, dressed in costume, rings in the New Year with a song as a burning tree collapses in the background. (That fire scene, incidentally, is another example of a bravura single take shot).

Cleo’s race is also a factor in her social status. She is an indigenous Mexican who speaks the Mixtec language with her friend and fellow housekeeper. While Trump’s America might paint all Mexicans with the same brush, a racial divide between light and dark-skinned Mexicans has always existed.

Dogs

Dogs show up throughout Roma, both physically and through their ubiquitous barking on the soundtrack. The family dog, Borras, is one of cinema’s most prodigious shitters, leaving piles all over the driveway that represent the increasing messiness of the family’s situation (or maybe it’s just dog crap). Cleo cleans that mess during the film’s wonderful opening shot (more on that later) only to have it return in the next scene.

At the rich family’s country estate, the stuffed heads of household dogs are mounted on the guest room wall in macabre fashion. It’s a sight gag poking fun at the bougie family, but as Cleo considers the heads while the current dog licks her hand, it’s also a reminder of her own mortality.

Elements

Nature often intrudes on the events of Roma, with all four elements represented: the earthquake, the forest fire, ice in the form of hail, and the water of the ocean. Water plays a huge role in the film, and gets its own section below.

Men

The men of Roma do not come off very well. The two main adult male characters — the family’s father and Cleo’s lover, Fermin — abandon their responsibilities and the women who know better than to count on them. Fermin is a recovering addict who found meaning in martial arts, and is now training with the CIA to be a member of Los Halcones, a black ops squad created to suppress demonstrations. Fermin’s macho posturing is a stark contrast to Cleo’s quiet strength.

The closest thing to a male role model in the film is Professor Zovek, a performer known as Mexico’s Houdini, who carried out feats of strength on TV. Early in the film he is seen on a TV screen pulling a car with his teeth. Later he shows up to train the Halcones in how the mind controls the body (the real-life Zovek was rumored to be a black ops trainer). He demonstrates a seemingly simple balancing trick, which none of the men are able to accomplish. Cleo does it without a problem.

Professor Zovek, incidentally, died a couple of years after the events of the film during a botched stunt. Some speculated that he was assassinated.

Movies

Cuaron’s love of movies was born in the large cinematheques he frequented as a child. Roma shows one of those movie houses off in style, both during the Marooned segment referenced earlier and in a scene where Fermin learns Cleo is pregnant and abandons her. The movie playing during the latter scene is La Grande Vadrouille, a French World War II comedy that remains one of the country’s highest grossing films. Whether it was an influence on Cuaron or simply a lighthearted backdrop to the emotional drama taking place in the theater isn’t clear.

Planes

Planes appear frequently in Roma, gliding by in the background while the drama plays out on the ground. Cuaron’s childhood home, the Roma of the title, was under the flight path of Mexico City’s airport, so these planes were likely a constant presence in his early life. Here they serve as a reminder of the larger world, a world that for Cleo, may as well be as far away as the spaceships in Marooned.

The film’s opening and closing shots feature a plane flying across the sky as Cleo works in the family home.

Water

Water is Roma‘s most prevalent recurring motif. The film opens on a shot of empty tile while we hear the sounds of mopping in the background. Then a puddle of water fills the frame and in its reflection we see a view of the sky above the family house, just as a plane crosses. Such a brilliant way to marry the mundane life of this domestic worker and the greater world she will never inhabit.

The film’s closing shot is a mirror of this one, showing the same image but looking up to the sky rather than down to the ground as Cleo ascends the stairs. Cuaron says that many years ago, the memory of his childhood nanny (Libo) climbing those stairs was the image that served as the catalyst for this film.

But back to the water. The dirty puddle grows deeper as she continues to clean, eventually circling down a drain. This opening shot has a direct counterpart in the film’s climax, where Cleo saves two of the children from drowning in the ocean. The gentle waves of mop water are echoed by the powerful waves she wades into despite her inability to swim.

In between we get many other glimpses of water, from the drying streams running through Ramon’s poor village to the buckets of pond water used to put out the forest fire at the country estate. Cleo’s work often involves water, whether she’s washing dishes or clothes. A rainstorm serves as the backdrop when the mother informs her children that their father is staying away longer than expected. In the chaos of the Corpus Christi Massacre, Cleo’s water breaks, sending her into her ill-fated labor.

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Cuaron’s fellow director and good friend, describes the emotional arc of Roma as moving from a drop to a stream to a river to an ocean. I think he’s exactly right. It certainly had that effect on me.

6 thoughts on “Themes and symbolism in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma

  1. Amy says:

    I’ve only seen the film once, but I, too, picked up on a few of these observations, particularly the juxtaposition of the hope of the new wedding/marriage in the background, as we watch the central family mourn the dissolution of their parents’ marriage.

    Another I’ve reflected on is the role of observation/eavesdropping. So often Cleo is in a position to witness something, as she is often relegated to the background. Yet when one of the sons listens in on his mother’s phone conversation, she is furious and strikes him. Fermin is similarly furious when Cleo is brought to his training place and definitively rejects and threatens her. Not sure what Cuaron is up to there, but there’s something there… thoughts?

    • Clay says:

      Yes, that’s a good one. I think it’s often the case that a housekeeper is privy to things most others wouldn’t be, simply by virtue of always being there and fading into the background. You see a similar dynamic with administrative assistants, who usually know more secrets about a business than anybody but the highest-level execs.

      Also, the bond between Cleo and Sofia is usually forged in those moments of silent communication. Cleo watches Sofia reject the advances of a drunk partygoer on New Year’s Eve. She knows the father is gone well before the kids do. I think it’s the closest to a friendship these two women can have given the class division between them.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    Commenting here just to keep the streak alive, as I have only seen half of the movie and share none of your obsession.

  3. Peg says:

    Very interesting observations. I especially like the water discussion. I wish Cuaron could read your analysis and tell us what he thinks. I’m sure he would be quite impressed 😊

  4. Mike says:

    Another few symbolic images.
    Cages. An early shot is left hanging on the bird cages, i.e., these women caged into situations that are beyond their control. Then, again. Later, there’s a lingering shot of the main door to the house, with bars down the front. Bars on the windows. Pillars. I took the planes as a way to “fly the coup,” although the connection to sky/space is relevant. He “flew” to Canada, etc.
    Guns. More obvious, but the theme is strong and of course foreshadows the massacre scene.
    Dogs & Water. To add to the above. Dog shit was also a theme. Their lives were “shit.” “Shit happens” as in the end frame of the film…. life just continues, shit and all. The opening scene is of water washing the shit away… which connects to the water at the end transforming Cleo and washing out her grief.
    Cycles. Waves coming in and out, like the tides it comes and go. Life comes and goes. Characters lives have to “move on”, the tides of life change, in and out, no one gets to settle. Cleo has to give up her child very quickly, time to move on, nothing to hold on to (literally in this case).
    The planes also were like a cycle, a reminder that life goes on, schedules planes still keep their schedule regardless of tragedy.
    Circus. The TV set and the guy pulling the car, him wearing the Luchador suit during the martial arts scene. The muddy slums with chaos all around, a kid in an astronaut helmet, kind of a “circus of life”. The krampus character on New Year’s chasing the kids – the scene was a circus with animal busts everywhere and tinsel and dogs and chaos. Also, the krampus character sings as a still and solitary figure during the count down with chaos all around of the fire, this unusal masked character unmasks… and life just goes on.
    That’s it. Life just goes on.
    There’s lots (and lots) in the film. And this is just 5 minutes after we saw the film, so it’s off the top of my head. There’s probably much more (pages… or a dissertation??).
    Great to read what’s above. Fun. Enjoy again and again:)

  5. Isabella Rock says:

    There is a theme of yoga—first, the small child repeatedly speaks of previous lives. Then only Cleo can perform the standing tree pose with Professor Zorek, indicating she is a yogi. The film’s credits end with the mantra shantih, shantih, shantih, a Sanskrit mantra.

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