The movie Roma is a beautiful hymn to women. It tells the story of Cleo, an indigenous (Mixtec) woman who works as a maid to an upper-middle-class Mexican family. She is wonderfully portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted before. She tends to the family and their mansion with humble dignity and loving care reminiscent of the hearth goddess Hestia. Her demeanor in the movie has been repeatedly called “stoic” by various reviewers. But she is so much more than stoic, the epithet which to me implies “in control of emotions”. What is more, the emotional depth is perhaps the most palpable, powerful feature of this compelling character. Granted, hers is introverted emotion, devoid of grand gestures, yet flowing like a strong river below the few words that she utters throughout the whole movie. Similarly, Hestia was as an unshaken guardian of the hearth, the Goddess of Being, who quietly maintained order and stability. Cleo embodies the qualities of love and humility; the latter word coming from Latin humus, i.e. earth. She is the rock for the troubled family, which has been abandoned by the selfish father. And she does not stop serving despite her own tragedy.
The opening scene focuses on foamy water being mopped across the floor. It is a sublime symphony to the mundane, repetitive household chores, which are deemed by some as demeaning but when viewed from a spiritual perspective they are the expression of pure love and humble work which sustains life. This work is unnoticed, unappreciated and endlessly repetitive, subject to ruthless entropy. It is often the task of the underprivileged, namely women or ethnic minorities. And yet, both Benedictine and Zen monks emphasize the necessity of working with hands as essential spiritual practice and as a way to relate and connect to the world around.
The director Alfonso Cuarón dedicated the movie to Libo, who is Liboria Rodríguez, his family’s longtime maid. By giving her the name Cleo (Greek for pride, fame and glory) in the movie he symbolically elevates her. Fermin, her heartless macho boyfriend, tries to demean her by calling her “a servant.” In his world her quiet power goes unappreciated. But as James Hillman observes in Kinds of Power,
“The idea of service demands surrender, a continuous attention to the Other. It feels like humiliation and servitude only when we identify with a ruling willful ego as mirror of a single dominating god.”
But god/goddess is not away from the world, as “the idea of an anima mundi (ensouled world) translates into care for things,” continues Hillman. Furthermore, in Japanese, the characters for “human being” mean “a person in between,” always related to others, interdependent with the environment. Water, which binds all, is the most powerful symbol in the movie, as pointed out by this reviewer:
“Fittingly, water is a recurrent motif – from the soapy suds of the opening credits (signalling the “woman’s work” that is never done?) to the breaking waters that prefigure a harrowing scene of unblinking sorrow, to the poignant Veracruz beach finale in which strong thematic undercurrents are given literal physical form. We see also planes reflected in that water, passing overheard, distant and unreachable, like a dream of escape.”
In his Dictionary of Symbols, Cirlot describes water as limitless and immortal; saying that “the waters are the beginning and the end of all things on earth.” Water powerfully mediates between life and death; the Babylonians called it “the home of wisdom.” For me, the movie provided a cathartic (from Greek kathairein – to cleanse) emotional release; it is both heartbreaking and uplifting, a real stroke of genius.