To us, (that is, to the Cascade-reading UFV public) ROMA ought to be notable mainly for its depiction of a kind of life that may go unnoticed by Canadian viewers. ROMA focuses primarily on Cleo (portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio, a school teacher who before ROMA had never acted), an Indigenous woman working as a live-in maid to a middle-class family. Cleo, always a factor in the movie (and indeed, its main character) is almost never presented in scenes as the most important. Her wants and needs almost always take second place to those of others. Very rarely does Cleo have or exercise social agency. At work, she defers to Sofia, the matriarch of the house. Stealing what few moments of personal socialization are available to her between tasks, Cleo gossips with Adela, another live-in maid.
Despite her obvious care toward the children of the house, and her attempt to edge out an identity for herself, Cleo is always defined as subservient to others, be it the family, or the men in her life. Her boyfriend Fermin, for example, after having slept with Cleo, abandons her upon news of the pregnancy in a scene that sees him first make clear that he is the most capable of physical violence out of the pair, and then threaten her should she once again bring up the possibility of Fermin being her child’s father.
Meanwhile, Cleo must continue to work while dealing with her own life. For example, Sofia (played by Marina de Tavira) is also left single after being left by her husband. Unlike Cleo, however, she has the luxury of being able to supplant the children (and Cleo) on a day-trip to the beach while her husband’s people move his furniture out of the house.
More than that, Cleo is offered a place at the family’s side, but only insofar as her role as a caretaker affords her a place dictated by the family itself. Back at the pueblo, Cleo’s working-class Indigenous townspeople fail to see her as truly one of their own, a result of her association with a more well-off family (her employers).
Also important to note is that Cleo’s desire to belong isn’t even the main tenet of the movie. Because the space that Cleo occupies (socially and otherwise) is always liminal, and because her grasp on that already liminal space is never guaranteed, Cleo’s time is spent ensuring the (mainly economic, but also social and emotional) conditions for her survival.
Cleo’s would-be quest to belong reaches its zenith in the last month of her pregnancy. (For the entire duration of which she has still worked daily — work that only stops the moment her water breaks.) In the moments leading up to the birth, Cleo finds and tenuously embraces the kind of selfless, willing servitude implicitly connected to romantic notions of motherhood.
Moreover, after Cleo’s pregnancy culminates in a dramatic scene of political violence and biological urgency, she is afforded a glimpse at what might have constituted her own life: a child, which, belonging to her, might have given her the real connection she was longing for. Unfortunately, the child is stillborn, and after holding her son for seconds before having it taken away from her, Cleo is left to once again return to her mistress’ house, where her job waits for her. Even the news of her child’s death only assays Cleo’s servitude briefly, as Sofia takes the children out on vacation in order to distract them from their father’s absence. In this instance Cleo is the closest she could be to belonging to the family, and yet, her job awaits her when they return. Still, as a scene toward the end of the film makes clear, Cleo’s presence in the family has been as instrumental to its survival as the job has been to hers.