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.

30 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.

    • Isabella Rock says:

      Watching it again, I noticed the ending scene. Cleo ascends to the roof and the credits roll over a shot of the staircase. This enforces the film’s positioning of Cleo as a spiritually advanced being.

  6. DF Devereux says:

    Much of the movie seemed disconnected until I realized every scene was a single page from a diary; today this happened, next day this happened…..etc. All separate incidences in Cleo’s life but each had to be dealt with by Cleo. Like all of us must do. Life goes on, indeed.
    Cinematography in black-and-white was extraordinary.

  7. larsiel says:

    4 elements don’t include ice. It should be air. I’m going to tag the planes for that.

    Loved everything.

  8. dwhite says:

    I agree with every aspect you mentioned. I loved this movie. You did not mention the aspect that struck me the most, SOUND. Amazing.

  9. Paulo says:

    I’m sorry to write this, but after watching the film I felt like I have had 2 hours dragged from my life….
    Yes there are elements in the film and the films technical approach, but please. This has to be one of the dullest films I have seen in a very long time.

    In summery it’s art, some of us love what we see, some of us hate what we see, what this is, is art that makes you discuss what you see. It’s one of those art pieces which people just talk crap about to make themselves look intelligent.

    It truely lacked depth and pace for me, I love a film that leaves you exasperated or challenged mentally. This did not. It’s painfully slow.

  10. Maria G Klein says:

    Thank you sharing such insights on this great film and for allowing a space for further comment. A big in your-face theme for me was the constant pooping of the dog & Cleo cleaning it up, the constant barking, wanting attention & food; then his wanting to run out onto the street every time the driveway door was opened. It symbolized the men in these two women’s lives who were “machistas”, self-centered & selfishly in pursuit of their own wants & needs without a care for the women & children (born & unborn). It was the women (regardless of class) who had to take care of the men, make them comfortable, listen to them, keep his home, cook his food, raise the children, tuck them in to bed, help them with homework… all the while the father appeared to be absent, like a ghost among them. These two women were abandoned to clean up the mess (dog poop) the men left behind; to pickup the pieces of their shattered lives and move on. In one scene the dog manages to get out the door and escapes, symbolizing the running away of the two men, abandoning their family, responsibilities as fathers & husband. What was so very empowering and inspiring to me was these two women coming together in such strong yet subtle ways to move on, not become victims and instead gather their strength and fiercely face what comes with such courage & conviction.. not just for themselves but for the children. Then there’s Cleo’s realization that although she went through with her pregnancy, it was an unwanted pregnancy & as such she didn’t want to give birth to this child.. she came to terms with that truth after rescuing, the children in her care, from drowning.. or it could also be her way of coping with the loss of the baby; either way it was a powerful scene. What an incredible masterpiece of a movie; so visually poetic. It so reminded me of the 1950’s Fellini films “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”. Thank You!

    • Cat says:

      The first time I watched Roma, I kind of felt the same way Paulo did. I am taking a class on Gender and Society and as my choice came back to this film to do my final project of dissecting and analyzing its themes. I am so glad I did. I am seeing it again through a whole different lens, and it’s an amazing movie. A movie that does indeed call attention to the little things, making them seem like so much more. Agreed, life can be shit, but it goes on and we are all indeed ALIVE and living it. What I love is that Cuaron is letting the world know that my or your life is no more valuable than a domestic worker. Here is her life, she is important, she matters and she helped raise an amazing artist who brought us this film. Bravo to everyone’s insights and appreciation on the film!

  11. Michele Quigley says:

    Thank you so much for this. I have seen ROMA once on the big screen and now play to view it on Netflix. So many great points you make.

  12. Michael says:

    The marching band. First time we see them Sofia is standing in the the street paralyzed, which essentially sums up her life at this point. The band marches on around her, like everyday life in their house does. Later in the film, the band is one again marching down the street only this time Sofia is alive, having having returned from the beach, accepting her fate and with a renewed desire to carry on. She is taking suitcases out of the car, etc.

    At first I didn’t know what to think of the film, but it continued to haunt me and I love discussing it with others who feel the same.

  13. Beatbox says:

    Why don’t they take poor Borras for a run in the park? I saw this as Borras and Cleo were held in the same position by the family. Loved, certainly. But ultimately they are under family control.

  14. Suzy says:

    Another way to look at the symbolism of the 4 elements… Earth air fire water. Earth in many different ways i.e. The land grab … the whole concept of astronauts Point of view text the Earth imagery to a different level… The earthquake as you mentioned… The shot of the cemetery where those we lost or buried under the Earth … and more. The element of fire as you discussed , the biggest one being the fire in the forest… The element of air including the astronauts floating in space… the continued Motif of the airplanes flying through … cleo smelling the air saying it smells just like her home village… And as you said, the many images and metaphors of water including her water breaking and the water passed down-the-line to put out the fire and the water that Cleo is constantly pouring on the stone floor to cleanse the shit away and the ocean in all it’s glory and its peril…. so many more, I can’t wait to watch it again. Also the astronaut imagery pulled me in…. the idea of traveling beyond our horizons, past all we know, into the future, and what a large pop culture concept that was; even the name of the car being a galaxy. The idea of space being the ultimate adventure, The unknown as Adventure , and that tying into when the mother was telling the kids the father was not coming back she kept painting a picture of their next step in life as i.an adventure… that the unknown future was to be looked at as adventures. For me the juxtaposition of the wedding versus the family pulling together over ice cream was almost a
    split screen juxtaposition of a wedding, the future and all the hopes and dreams it encompasses, everything we believe will last forever, versus the reality of real life, the fragility and the disappointments and how we just have to pull together and find ice cream moments ; pull together as family to get through all the unexpected twists and turns of the present.

    • Suzy says:

      Also the superhero muscle man part…. for me there’s something there about the quest/ability to achieve balance, closing your eyes, (maybe to the craziness around you?), and finding the ability to stay grounded and stand still and firm as the world continues swirling around you…as well as above you, the plane flying through the frame, framed perfectly in his outstretched skyward arms as he stands planted in the moment….

  15. kent says:

    I think your description of the cinematography was spot on. The way the camera moved through the street to capture life in the city made me feel as if I were watching it personally. I turned the volume up high and heard the amazing sounds of the city, the marching band, the knife sharpener and the traffic. Having spent much time in Latin America, I was able to relate to what the director created. I totally disagree with the commenter who found the movie boring and unintelligent. There was so much symbolism and imagery that I believe this movie will be talked about for a long time.

  16. Germán says:

    I’m a U.S. born Mexican raised in LA with strong ties to Mexico and the types of stories depicted in the film. The film was too close to reality to be exceptionally interesting to me. It’s like filming everyday life. So what.

    A universal truth that stands out as a symbol in the film, however, that echoes from experiences related by Mexican female relatives is that men are dogs and are not responsible for their own shit. Women have to clean up after them, raise the kids, do the housework, and in the end ultimately take financial responsibility for the entire family.

    Women are thus trapped in a man’s macho, violent, sexualized world. Nothing new to see here.

    Beautiful references to Italian neo-realist films, and nice coincidental title to the film. I would have liked to see a nice floating statue of Christ in the opening shot. For Roma, maybe it should have been a statue of the Virgin Mary dangling from a helicopter.

  17. Olivia says:

    Something I found so powerful in this film was the lingering of certain shots, almost to the point of discomfort. It forced you to dwell a bit longer and ask yourself why certain scenes were being carried out for so long, like the washing of the driveway in the opening scene, the scene of the newborn unit, the husband pulling into the driveway at a painstaking pace, the fire scene, etc. They often seemed to be unimportant, everyday scenes (as someone said), but I saw this as a key tool to make the films impact more powerful, not less powerful. You weren’t able to immediately pick out what the director intended for you to hold onto. But as soon as something was brought back later, like the ocean waves, the birth of Cleo’s baby, the crumbling of the marriage… you realize that those seemingly mundane scenes that were dragged out stuck with you in the best way, and gave you something to connect with when the director was ready to take you there. I almost don’t even feel like I am sophisticated enough to comment on the beauty of this film and it’s subtle yet powerful storytelling power. But regardless, I’m definitely an admirer.

  18. Michele Quigley says:

    Before I read your line about not being sophisticated enough, I was thinking how your writing pulled me in and you had such good insight. Thank you!

  19. JBG says:

    What about he youngest referencing how he used to be a pilot or drowned in the ocean as if he was warning/predicting what was to occur….always referencing death?

  20. Chris Takimoto says:

    I think this is a masterpiece of cinematic art. So much like great literary works that require an active thoughtful reader up to the task of appreciating the symbolism that enhances the fundamental themes of the broader work. There is literally no detail in any scene that is not put there with purpose and intent. Thank you for a wonderful perspective on this wonderful thought provoking film. Any thoughts on the closing line: “Shantih Shantih Shantih”, which is not only a Sanskrit mantra, but also the closing line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”?

    • Clay says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. I suppose the “Shantih Shantih Shantih” is just leaving the audience with a message of peace. Cuaron also ended his film Children of Men with that phrase.

    • Lisa Te Pana says:

      Thank you Clay and everyone else for your thoughts on this movie. I watched it 2 days ago, immediately wondered what all the fuss was about and have had the film running through my head for the past 2 days to the point I hunted out articles such as yours. I noticed planes, water, ‘shit happens’ and life moves on.

      I also noticed Cleo’s detachment from major incidents such as the hospital earthquake, Fermin’s abandonment is just accepted, Cleo’s mother is about to lose her land – Cleo just shrugs it off. It wasn’t until her baby’s birth that her emotions are released and the cleansing of the sea draws this out further. This may be an acceptance of the daily struggle, having to put emotions to the side to cater to her employer’s needs.

      Also, another motif is men swinging their dicks around, epitomised by Fermin’s bedroom performance which Cleo is forced to watch. Professor Zovek performs his yoga move which has taken skilful training for many to master. None of the martial arts trainees can do it, but Of course Cleo can do it easily, unnoticed. Perhaps this is commenting on the difficulties for men taking on responsibility, while women just have to learn to cope and get on with it. They don’t have the luxury of time to learn mastery.

      Also, I think the Professor was the performer who was shot out of the cannon in Fermin’s village scene. More dick-Swinging perhaps? Flying?

      Thanx for the opportunity to participate.

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