Alfonso Cuarón is a Mexican director who is largely known for films such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best one), Gravity, and most recently Roma. Cuarón has a reputation for beautiful one shot sequences and his two time success in winning the academy award for best director, a landmark only achieved by one other Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, for Birdman and the Revenant. Yet with this landmark achievement, I would point out that the recognition that Roma has garnered sets itself apart from these achievements in directing. Here, a film directed in the actual neighborhood Cuarón grew up in features a leading cast of female characters, most notably the character of Cleo, the indigenous lower class maid to the middle class family. Played by Yalitza Aparicio in her first major acting role, the actress’ portrayal of a quiet live in maid whose close relationship with the family and her struggle with her unplanned pregnancy are honest and hard to find in modern major films. Yet, little has been said about some of the major thematic consistencies between Cuarón’s newest work and his 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men. While the movies’ tonalities couldn’t be more different, the inner conflict of both movie’s leading female roles are two distinct yet similarly emotionally complex struggles with pregnancy in their environments. These pregnancy narratives are not the focuses of either film plot wise but they dominate much of what makes Cuarón’s movies so emotionally honest and powerful. The fact both of these women are women of color in lower class statuses add to why I think these stories are so important to see and talk about.
To start, Children of Men is set in the apocalyptic year of 2027. In this world, much of society has become destabilized after 20 years of infertility leaves the aging population to face the inevitable death of the human race. The movie begins in the last remaining functioning city of London, where the internment and persecution of refugees dominates government messaging and propaganda while rebel factions of political dissidents attempt guerilla reform. The leading role of Clive Owen’s Theo is called on to transport a refugee woman Kee who we learn is miraculously pregnant. She and Theo run for much of the movie in search of reaching a promised “Human Project” which is the last remaining hope for human survival and peace. Much of what strengthens the film is the more universal message against anti immigration and even follows Kee and Theo’s journey towards safety as a “modern Nativity tale”.
In Roma, Cuarón departs from his politically charged and symbolically driven style and instead follows Cleo and her life with a middle class family who she exists simultaneously within as a servant and an important and loved part of the family. The film is Cuarón’s most autobiographical, shooting the film in his childhood neighborhood and pulling from much of his experience growing up without his father and the relationship he had with his own nanny. The film, while not intentionally imbued with any messaging, is impossible to distance from the politics of the world is exists inc, another major theme in Cuarón’s work. Set in 1970 Mexico City, political turmoil and instability swim in the periphery of the family, closing in as they are increasingly abandoned by the male characters and move closer to collapse.
An important moment in establishing both women’s roles in their worlds is the moment their pregnancy is revealed and we as an audience are aware of the choices available to both women. Cleo’s pregnancy is announced and just as soon as she has told her boyfriend he abandons her. Inversely, Kee reveals her literal miracle of a pregnancy to Theo in a literal barn, not unlike the nativity. Here, both women’s pregnancies drive forward much of the movies personal narrative. An important theme to pay attention at this point is the fate of both women as determined by the choices available. It is little coincidence that Kee lives in a world where her pregnancy could potentially save the human race and that Cleo’s exists in Mexico City’s 1970, a deeply catholic society where abortion is a sin. Both women have no ability to decide if they are ready for motherhood and as such are confronted with their inevitable birth.
Eventually Cuarón shows us the birth of both of these women and the parallels are striking. Labor for both women is induced in the midst of a political turmoil and combat. Cleo and the family grandmother Teresa go shopping for a crib as the delivery approaches. As arrive at the store, student protest groups gather in the streets and the protest soon devolves into riots as police begin beating the students. Soon a paramilitary group begins to shoot at the students and chase a couple into the store where Teresa and Cleo are shopping. The very gunman who points a gun at Cleo is the child’s father who has abandoned her. The stress and shock sends Cleo into labor and she is rushed to a hospital only to give birth to a stillborn baby. Kees birth sequence is similarly initiated in a moment of serious danger. As she and Theo are transported to the concentration camp for refugees in order to make contact with the human project, Kee begins to go into labor. Theo and Kee continue to fight through the riot like conditions of the camp and that night Kee delivers her baby in practically destroyed room with only Theo to help. Her baby is born and the for the first time in 20 years there is a new child.
Cuarón codes these scenes of the women becoming mothers with a juxtaposition of the world around them. In Children of Men Kee and Theo must leave in the morning as the concentration camp is being invaded and bombed. They run through the streets towards the ocean and pass a woman holding her dead sons body. In Roma Teresa and Cleo leave the cradle store in the midst of the rioting and pass a protestor holding a dead young man, presumably her boyfriend. These scenes of birth in the middle of moments of loss further complicate our reception of these women’s giving birth. In a world where women of color die in labor at disproportionate rates to white women, these fears and anxieties are not misplaced in this scene. (Rosenthal and Lobel)
In Cleos story her world seems to warn her of her child’s fate and we see Cleo process these omens with the dread only she seems to feel. At the end of the movie she admits to the family in an emotional crescendo what we the viewer already knew. She did not want her baby. Her lack of options and alternatives to carrying her pregnancy to term is not one unfamiliar to women in religious communities such as Catholic Latin America. (Mercedes, Grossman, Tronosco, Billings, and Chávez) The importance of Cuaróns stories of emotionally complex approaches to pregnancy is hard to overstate. As someone who has personally had to confront the complex issue of abortion personally, Kee and Cleo’s reluctance and fear of the implications of their pregnancies resonate with me in a way few other movies have. My own experience was also colored by my privilege as a white woman with the financial means and support of my partner at the same time that it was shaped by my deeply Catholic family and upbringing. The guilt Cleo carries is something thats hard to find portrayed as honestly and as complex as it is Roma. Seeing Roma both reminded me of my experience and provided a type of closure. The reality of pregnancy and the unnecessarily complicated reality of reproductive rights, especially for poor women of color is not one that has been given its proper representation. With a world of over 7 billion people, all birthed by mothers, not every pregnancy is baby showers and gender reveal cakes. The dangers and complications of motherhood and reproductive rights are often conversations had in private and treated as a one size fits all experience, and it can’t continue.
Rosenthal and Lobe “Explaining Racial Disparities in Adverse Birth Outcomes: Unique Sources of Stress for Black American Women.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 4 Feb. 2011, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953611000566 Accessed 10 Mar. 2019
Mercedes, Grossman, Tronosco, Billings, and Chávez “Women’s Perspectives on Medical Abortion in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru: A Qualitative Study.”