Latin American cinema gets to grips with the legacy of colonialism
Winner of Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, and new Netflix release, Roma is the latest film directed by Mexican Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The film takes place in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, where Cuarón grew up. The narrative takes place in Mexico after the country hosted the 1968 Olympics, the games that impassioned the student movement and eventually led to the massacre of students in 1971. It also offers an interesting comparison to the Brazilian movie, The Second Mother, directed by Anna Muylaert in 2015. Both productions explore the heritage of slavery in Latin America from the perspective of housekeepers who are exploited by colonial racism.
In Roma, the housekeeper Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) occupies a “place at the family table” but is repeatedly reminded of her status. The family shows their affection to Cleo as they constantly declare “I love you”, but are shown in the next moment asking her to cook or clean for them. Boundaries are clearly set between them, even though Cleo is in the bosom of the family. Cleo is a passive subject in the action, her passivity marking a sign of systematic exploitation indicated by the words, “I would like to be dead.”
The maid’s story is similar to that of Libo, who worked in director Cuarón’s own family, and whose perspective informs the script. As Cuarón revisits his memories of Libo, he needs to distinguish his own privileged point of view from hers, a poor, indigenous woman subject to systematic racism. The camera follows the action in scenes that comprise of a single, one-take shot (one of the director’s notable techniques).
The filmmaker does not attempt to offer a tribute to Libo as an individual. Latin American countries have thousands of such “Cleos”, whose position is evidence of an unjust hierarchy. The sense of personal testimony in Cuarón’s film makes a political statement about class inequality and working conditions, as does his casting of a non-professional native Mexican, Yalitza Aparicio, in a role which embodies resilience.
The domestic working system that Cuarón explores reflects how affluent white classes across Latin America are afforded the best education and job opportunities, while people of colour face poverty, subservient jobs and racial bias. This stems from the colonial era, between the 16th and 19th century, when indigenous and African people were enslaved by white European colonists. To this day, indigenous people and Afro-descendants continue to feel the effects of colonial oppression.
The maids in Roma live in a modest small room in the back of the house, historically related to the shanties where slaves used to sleep during this colonial period. They live where they work and receive a low salary, undertaking exhausting journeys without rest, and enduring a heavy workload, echoing the legacy of racialised slavery.
According to resources, in 2015 there were about 23 million domestic workers in Mexico, often indigenous women. That same year, Brazil established a law in defence of domestic workers which granted their rights – such as unemployment insurance, limits on working hours and paid holidays – yet only a minority of employers abide by it today.
The female Brazilian director Muylaert released a film called The Second Mother in 2015, where she also revisited her childhood memories of a maid exploited by an upper-middle-class family. In her film, the leading character Val (Regina Casé), a domestic worker, undergoes a personal transformation upon the arrival of her daughter Jessica, both of whom live in the small back room of the house.
Jessica confronts Val’s exploitation and racial discrimination, while her mother lectures her about “the dos and don’ts” of a servant. As the daughter of a servant, a submissive attitude is expected from her, while her masters make fun of her plans for her future. At one point Val states: “There’s no need to explain, we are born knowing what we can and can’t do.” These unspoken laws put people of colour at the bottom of society; despite there being no segregation law, they are ghettoised, particularly in Brazil. But Jessica eventually rebels against her treatment and demands better conditions.
The ongoing reality of these two cinematic stories is highlighted by the campaign, Eu, Empregada Doméstica (Me, The Maid) by activist Preta Rara, where she posts the anonymous testimonies of genuine maids. Diverse stories describe the cruelty of the rich against poorer women, including making the servants eat with separate cutlery or outside the house.
The Second Mother helped spark the discussion about racial discrimination and gender inequality. Muylaert achieved acclaim from critics and awards worldwide, including the Berlinale, Sundance and Critic’s Choice Awards. The movie helped establish women’s presence in the film industry, as Muylaert became the first female director in 30 years to be pre-selected as Brazil’s deputy entrant for the Oscars.
Although both movies portray similar situations common to women of colour in Latin America, the most notable difference in both films is one of style. Cuarón’s film explores camera movement – his choice of black and white cinematography gives the film a poetic quality. His techniques focus on the implicit meanings within images and gestures that make dialogue unnecessary.
Meanwhile, Muylaert’s movie pays close attention to dialogue and casts Regina Casé – a well-known comic actress – as the lead character. Casé’s performance adds a sense of naturalness to the breakthrough moments of critical awareness achieved by the character Val. The director opted for static takes from the kitchen where most of the action takes place, in order to tell the story from the servant’s point of view and, once more, to use her as a reminder of the servant’s “rightful” place. In contrast, repeated airplanes flying overhead give Cuarón’s Roma a sense of fluidity. Muylaert instead incorporates the idea of change as the audience follows Val’s growing realisation of her own oppression.
Roma deservedly won Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Golden Globes and is predicted to win multiple Oscar nominations in February – while its Netflix platform provides a prominent stage for a foreign movie. Both Roma and The Second Mother are important tools for opening up the discussion on domestic workers globally, scrutinising abuse and residual colonial racism in Latin America.
However, it also shows a lack of representation in the cinema industry, as ‘Masters of Big Houses’ are needed to tell the story of the working classes of the shanties. From class inequality to international relations, Latin America still suffers from the slumdog complex, which values the knowledge and production of white Europeans above their own. Nevertheless, Roma is a Mexican movie spoken in a combination of Mixtec and Spanish languages, and so it represents a political stand against the mainstream conventions in the cinema industry, while telling an uncomfortable truth in the form of a poetic verse.
Image from Roma here