Film & Television

Extreme Childcare:
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ and ‘Roma’

Another caregiver is featured — and honored — by the much smaller film, Roma. Although you may not smile as much, certain scenes will stay with you for days. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Roma is a deeply personal project. The film focuses on maid and nanny Cleo and her symbiotic relationship with her employer’s family, set against the political and social upheavals in Mexico during the early 1970s. Shot in black and white (Cuarón served as cinematographer as well as writer and director), it’s an intense memory piece, dealing with the challenging subjects of class, race, and gender, in an evolving country without preaching or even taking a side. While you can sit back and relax through Mary Poppins Returns, there is much work to do watching Roma.

Cuarón has dedicated Roma to Libo Rodriguez, his own family’s servant and the woman who helped raise him. In the film, Cleo is a diligent worker and clearly loves her young charges. She works for the affluent Señor Antonio (a doctor) and Señora Sofia (a biochemist) in the comfortable Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Rounding out the family are four rambunctious children (three boys and a girl), Adela (the cook), a driver, and Señora Teresa (Sofia’s aging mother). There’s also a dog who isn’t toilet trained, barks incessantly, and bolts if someone doesn’t hold him back whenever the gates are open. The day-to-day chaos of the household is amplified when Antonio leaves for a supposed conference in Quebec, but turns out to be living with another woman. Scorned (and without enough money), Sofia struggles to build a new life for her family, alternating between smothering her children with affection and raging over trivial offenses. Cleo, calm and steady, provides the children with a modicum of normalcy, even as her own life takes unexpected turns.

Early on, Cleo agrees not to attend a movie with the cousin of Adela’s boyfriend. They wind up in a hotel instead, in a strange scene in which her lover, the self-absorbed and despicable Fermin, demonstrates martial arts in the nude while Cleo watches intently from the bed. Weeks later, when she tells him that she’s pregnant, he disappears. With a growing belly, she confides in Sofia, prepared for dismissal. But her employer is wholly supportive. Later, after drinking too much and smashing the family’s oversized car in their narrow driveway, Sofia expresses solidarity with the abandoned Cleo, “No matter what they tell you. Women, we are always alone.”

Aside from the insular family drama, Roma, which has been nominated for three Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film), includes breathtaking images and precious, isolated moments of cinematic genius. Cleo, who tries to track down Fermin on a day off, watches a field of men practicing martial arts. Their leader, a television strongman phenomenon known as “Professor Zovek,” demonstrates a seemingly simple but actually near impossible yogic tree pose. He closes his eyes, stands on one foot with the other bent and balanced against the standing leg knee, arms extended above his head. The young athletes laugh at him, but he insists it is more difficult than they realize and dares them to try it. Of course, the cocky young men almost immediately lose their balance. Only Cleo, pregnant and watching from the sidelines, achieves the difficult pose.

In another scene, a rich extended family (cousins of Sofia’s) celebrates New Year’s at a palatial if somewhat ghoulish country estate. (The mounted heads of the family’s dead dogs line the walls of the children’s sleeping quarters; a man dons an elaborate monster costume and chases the guests.) There is unrest among the indigenous villages as the richer Europeans seize their land. The party breaks down as a forest fire breaks out, lit by vengeful locals. The aforementioned costumed reveler removes his mask and sings as the fire burns.

Cuarón includes historical events remembered from his childhood. When Teresa takes Cleo, close to term, to buy a crib, they witness through the department store’s windows a student demonstration that devolves into a bloody counterattack (the real-life Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971). A demonstrator runs in seeking protection and is followed by a rabid gun-toting gang, one of whom Cleo realizes is Fermin.

The film has two climactic sequences: one for Cleo, one for the family — although the two are unbreakably entwined.

For the role of Cleo, Cuarón chose newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. Although Roma’s success is very much due to her magnetic presence, Aparicio is a schoolteacher, not an actress. The character, and consequently the actor, is quiet and still. She answers questions, comforts the children, confides in Adela, but rarely speaks more than a sentence or two. She doesn’t volunteer information about her past and certainly doesn’t express any hopes for the future. The family counts on her and eventually, after an act of bravery and sacrifice on Cleo’s part, realizes that they cherish her. A new family is formed on a sweeping beach in Veracruz, with Cleo surrounded by love, and Antonio (and Fermin) at last forgotten. When they return to Mexico City, however, Cleo collects the laundry and climbs to the roof, alone, to wash and hang it up to dry.

In their own extremely different ways (indeed, the cinematic styles couldn’t be further apart), both Mary Poppins Returns and Roma honor the women who care for our children. Whether they’re as Technicolor as Mary or as invisible as Cleo, these often underappreciated extensions of our families undeniably shape our futures.

Mary Poppins Returns is currently in theatres. Roma is playing in limited release or available on Netflix.


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