Grief is a complex thing. Each of us grieves in our own way and for our own reasons. Alfonso Cuaron’s sensitive and compelling Roma, tells the story of Cleo, a domestic employee, and her employer, Ms. Sofia. We follow two very different women linked together in parallel universes of betrayal and loss. Two women with polar opposite reactions to grief. Grief brings turmoil; in its crashing waves or subtle surges; threatening to pull us down like the sea’s dangerous undertow. Grief’s eruptions aren’t easy to manage. And, there are various ways grief is either felt, faced; or is not. Cleo and Sofia give us two contrasting windows: one into grief’s sometimes unmistakable numbness; the other it’s angry blaming storm.
As Roma begins, we see divisions of class and labor. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works long after the family sleeps; has a new boyfriend; and sings lullabies of love to the family’s children. We see Ms. Sofia (Marina de Tavira) who loves her husband, but has a marriage with its tensions. Neither woman knows; soon there will be betrayal.
Betrayal Of Trust
Ms. Sofia & Dr. Antonio
Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is a frustrated man; his big Galaxy car; his big ego; unable to find room in the too narrow garage; in his crowded family; four kids; a wife; her mother … and all the dog poop; the messy needs of everyone; all that he hates.
In fact, he argues with Sofia; behind their closed bedroom door. Then, he’s going away. The kids are told he’s doing research in Canada. But, that isn’t the real story. He wants his freedom; has a mistress; takes the VW bug; leaving Sofia with the oversized Galaxy; and the too-large family responsibilities to navigate alone.
We watch; as she doesn’t want him to go; as she grabs him from behind in a fierce hug; kissing him aggressively. No matter; he’s cold and unresponsive. Plus, he’s stepped in Borras’ dog poop once again.
Behind them on the street is a marching band. The drums pound; the music is insistent; harsh; as jarring as Dr. Antonio’s leaving. Sofia watches him drive away; then, turning to Cleo without any other place to put her anger or hurt: “I told you to clean up the poop;” as if the fault is hers.
This is Sofia’s way. There’s no shortage of feeling pouring out of her; feelings she deals with by lashing out at Cleo and her kids. As erratic as Cleo is contained.
But, Dr. Antonio’s betrayal is great. Sofia has reasons for how she feels. It’s just that she doesn’t know what to do with them; can’t contain them; or stay calm for the kids. Instead, her feelings come exploding out.
To the children, she lies; and they carry the secret knowledge of something wrong; something disturbing; the grief that can’t be talked about or felt.
Cleo & Fermin
There are signs; to be sure; that Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is a bad risk. In his apartment, after laughingly running through the streets with Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia), her friend (the kitchen help for Dr. Antonio and Ms. Sofia), Cleo is in bed; in a nightgown; waiting for her first experience of sex.
Fermin belligerently macho is showing off his aggressive martial arts moves, naked; spinning around; somewhat threatening. But, Cleo is well-practiced in patience. Calm as she is calm with Ms. Sofia and the children; calm with the insecure Fermin; she makes him feel wanted and admired.
Fermin tells his sad story; his mother dying when he was young; beaten up by cousins; getting in with the bad crowd; until he found martial arts and “everything went into focus; just like when you look at me.” Cleo wants to feel wanted too. He kisses her hands. And, Cleo is drawn in. They make love.
Being Rejected & Left
But, then she is “late.” At the movies, she tells him she thinks she’s pregnant. He says: “Well, ok, that’s good, right?” It’s what she hopes to hear:“Yes?” “Yeah.” But, quickly Fermin excuses himself. And, when the movie ends, Cleo waits outside alone. Behind her is a sign: “No strings. No tricks.” She knows he’s gone. Cleo is young and scared.
Yet, Cleo knows her place; she keeps her feelings in their tightly closed compartment. Calm and contained as she always is. Later, when Sofia yells and tells her to clean the dog poop; Cleo quietly obeys.
She gets the buckets; cleanser; and broom. Water sloshes over the floors; soapy, dirtied water running down the drain. This doesn’t get rid of anger; hurt; or grief. She understands Ms. Sofia. Cleo can try to wash away her feelings, but she’s suffered rejection too.
Two women enduring betrayal and loss. Two women who don’t know how to grieve.
Ways Not to Grieve
Grief always causes upheaval; even when feelings are difficult to feel. In Roma, we see cinematographic images; symptoms of Sofia and Cleo’s emotional storms. Natural disasters; fires and earthquakes; and the overwhelmingly threatening waves of the sea.
Yet, how does anyone navigate the distress and despair of grief alone? Sofia rages. Or drinks. Cleo mostly goes numb; trying to walk through the eye of the hurricane with her usual calmness; untouched.
Signs of Cleo’s numbness are everywhere at the beginning of Roma. There’s the washing of floors; buckets of soapy water; sloshed around, and then swept away. To drain it all away.
There’s her game with little Pepe (Marco Graf): “I’m dead. I can’t talk,” he says.” “Then resurrect,” Cleo tells him. When Pepe doesn’t respond, Cleo decides to play along: “Hey, I like being dead.” Yes, dead is numb; which can seem calm (and relaxing). But dead is a way not to feel and not to grieve.
Yet, really, feelings are everywhere; in the noisy kids; in the tension between Ms. Sofia and Dr. Antonio. And, hidden away; inside Cleo’s calm exterior; inside her smile; her warmth; the way nothing, seemingly, rattles or touches her.
Until something begins to stir with Fermin walking away. We see it in the earthquake at the hospital; rubble falling on incubated babies; while Cleo stands still.
Not Sofia, though. Sofia has never been calm; having chaotic feelings she can’t contain. Sofia feels only anger; the anger Cleo doesn’t feel.
Sofia’s Unruly Anger
We see images; igniting outside Sofia’s attempts to cheerily take the children on the Christmas holiday without Dr. Antonio. There are fires; raging signs of danger as everyone grabs buckets of water; to douse out the flames. There’s devastation; what’s been burned by betrayal and its anger will have to re-grow and re-root. But how?
Sofia’s anger is as out of control. Lashing out; blaming others; a way to get rid of her sadness, and hurt. But, raging isn’t a self-reflection; or a facing what has brought her to this fury.
And, she can get wildly angry. Even slapping Paco (Carlos Peralta), for eavesdropping; but then collapsing in tears at what she’s done. Lashing out at Cleo for not keeping him from coming close to her door. She takes her grief out on others; blames them; sometimes feels remorse; then closes it off; almost as if nothing happened.
Not To Feel Agonies of Her Loss
Yes, these are some of Sofia’s methods – since she doesn’t know how to live with the agonies of betrayal and loss. Getting rid of her feelings too; differently from Cleo; but in every way she can. If not lashing out; Sofia gets drunk.
Crashing the Galaxy against the sides of the too narrow garage; smashing into the walls; splintering the plaster; backing up; trying again; with more shattering of the driveway; where Dr. Antonio was the one that used to park that car.
It is her anger at him; for leaving her alone in this house; with all the responsibilities he shirked; his neglect of her and the kids; leaving her with the pain of the loss she cannot feel. Inebriation seems a useful sedative; except, it doesn’t work.
Watching Sofia, Cleo stands aside. In her usual calm, opens the car door. Sofia staggers out. Taking Cleo’s face in her hands, she drunkenly says: “We are alone. Women are always alone.”
This lonely sadness is what neither woman can bear. Cleo goes numb; Ms. Sofia runs away.
Navigating Sad Waters Of Grief
For Cleo, feeling sadness begins with facing what happens next. Preparing for her baby’s birth, Ms. Teresa (Veronica Garcia), Sofia’s mother, takes Cleo to buy a crib. Turmoil is all around; in students protesting outside; in the feelings, Cleo keeps away.
When a group of demonstrators violently run into the store; one protestor shoots another. Cleo suddenly sees that the shooter is Fermin; her betrayer. A murderer; not just an aggressive man. Seeing what he’s done and knowing what he’s done to her, her water breaks.
Now, instead of the washing/sweeping away; there’s flooding out. But, her baby, a little girl, is born dead. With the deadness outside her now; she watches; as the doctors try to resuscitate the stillborn baby; as still as Cleo has been still; but they can’t. Cleo watches, as her baby is wrapped up to be taken away.
Yet, Cleo isn’t dead or numb anymore. Her sadness resurrected. She cries. But, old self-protection isn’t easily given up. And, later, she sits; staring into space; quietly in despair.
There’s more to grieving than numbness. Or anger. Or drinking. There is a learning to live inside the seemingly too wild feelings trying to break loose. Learning how to feel, as Cleo is. Accepting what must be felt.
Riding The Waves
Ms. Sofia finally tells her children the truth; their father’s not coming home; his business trip a lie. But, she brushes aside their worries as if they are nothing. She doesn’t go to the sobbing Paco with comfort; or to Tono (Diego Cortina Autrey), her oldest son, sitting; alienated; alone. Because Sofia gets rid of her own feelings; she can’t make room for sadness or fears.
Instead, as if it is fun and games, not a major loss, she takes them to the sea. Driving the Galaxy on a goodbye trip (after she buys herself a new car). Ms. Sofia does herself and her kids no favors; not being able to deal with sadness; as a mom must be able to do. She puts her kids in danger; walking away as she does, literally; leaving Sofi (Daniela Demesa) and Paco out in a sea of threatening waves; telling them to stay close to shore.
But, children don’t know what to do with overwhelming sadness about a dad they’re afraid doesn’t love them. She leaves Cleo, who can’t swim; still struggling with her own numb despair; to watch over them; alone. Sometimes, though, out of disconnection comes a centering; a knowing that you can handle emotional pain when you must. And, this is what Cleo is finally able to do.
Cleo, who cannot swim; who has kept herself barely afloat in her detachment; goes into the sea; braves the waves of the sadness, loss, guilt, and rejection she didn’t want to feel; and saves the children and herself.
Healing & Hope
There is hope in the way Cleo endures these difficult and dangerous waters; and learns that she can. Healing is allowing the pain of grief to be felt; pass through us as deeply as it sits in our bones; cry it out; scream; to feel it all.
Healing isn’t being frightened of grief’s intensity. Sometimes it takes finding someone who understands; who knows what it means to go through it too. Although they don’t talk openly; Cleo and Sofia, as different as they seem, are partners. In some ways standing side by side in their grief.
We might even say they are mirrors of each other. Of what it means not to suffer what must be felt. And then to finally begin to feel it; when and in the ways they can.
At the end of Roma, Cleo sees her reflection in the glass table. She recognizes the signs of a previously-not-there sadness etched into her usually unscathed calm. She’s facing grief.
Grief changes us. In the best of ways; we learn; grow; become less-one-dimensional; more aware of our many-patterned feelings; of who we really are.
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