‘Roma’ & Alfonso Cuaron’s Other Films Allow Women To Just Be — And That’s Shockingly Rare
"No matter what they tell you, women, we are always alone." Sofía (Marina de Tavira), a middle class mother of four, says this to her maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Roma, and her statement is true of both main characters in Alfonso Cuarón's film, which is now nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. But looking back at his filmography, it also accurately describes the women in his other movies. The four major feature films that Cuarón has written and directed are all about women who are alone — sometimes in the most literal sense — and dealing with a variety of struggles within their own minds and bodies.
While Cuarón has directed a number of films and shorts, the ones he's best known for are Roma, Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mamá También. (He also famously directed the third Harry Potter movie, but did not pen the screenplay.) Each of these is about the private, internal lives of women, even if it takes a while to realize that. So much consistent focus on the perspective of women is rare for a male director (and for cinema as a whole). And, as a woman watching those films, I find the depictions striking. His characters are all in difficult situations, and the way they react to their struggles feels real in a way that allows you to put yourself in their shoes.
An Atlantic profile of Cuarón highlights the small amount of male characters in Roma, as well as the director's admiration of the women in his films. He explained in the interview that he'd experienced men leaving his life, including his own father when he was young. "Women taking charge in raising families," Cuarón said of his experience. "And an absence of men." But while the focus on women is clear in his work, their significance is about more than just that. From pregnancy to loss to illness to sex, the way these women, on their own, think and how they internalize things is explored through symbolism and silence in a beautiful, haunting way.
Let's start with 2001's Y Tu Mamá También, which, on the surface, is a movie about two young men, Tenoch and Julio (Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal) who like having sex and go on a road trip. But it's their older companion, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who gives the film a good deal of its depth. At the end of the movie, we find out she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which she knew about for the entire trip. Suddenly, the movie is not about a threesome with an adventurous lady (to be fair, their story is more than just that, too), but about a woman running away from it all and keeping everything to herself. This changes the way the audience views the events they just watched. Judgments that were made about Luisa's decisions have another layer added to them, and the film asks viewers for even more self-reflection.
Interestingly, the film also makes a reference to a family maid, connecting back to Cuarón's real life, and anticipating Roma in a way. As Roger Ebert's review explains, "At times during this journey the soundtrack goes silent and we hear a narrator who comments from outside the action, pointing out the village where Tenoch's nanny was born and left at 13 to seek work." While the two young men are both well-off (like Cuarón was and the children in Roma are) that is not the case for everyone in the Mexico they're driving through. While Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa's story is what we are watching, there are many other people surrounding them, who have their own lives and who could never even be in the situation they are. With Roma, Cuarón tells one of these stories.
Similar to Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men (2006), adapted from the 1992 novel by P.D. James, is not strictly about one woman. It takes place in a dystopian near-future where humans can no longer reproduce and revolves around the government and rebels and refugees. The exception to the rule, a woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is going to have a child. Due to the state of the world, she has to keep her pregnancy a secret, and while a few people know, she is the only one who can truly feel and understand her position. In a scene very clearly evoking the birth of Christ, Kee eventually welcomes a daughter. With this, Cuarón references the most famously alone in her experience woman there is: the Virgin Mary.
Then there's Gravity, by far the most literal take on the theme. After the rest of her crew dies, Dr. Ryan Stone is left to figure out a way home from outer space. For much of the movie, all we see is Sandra Bullock and vast, endless space. She's alone with her thoughts, which include the death of her young daughter. Like Luisa in Y Tu Mamá También, Ryan moved physically away when there was something dark in her life. And there is a clear reference here too to the idea of birth: In one memorable shot, Ryan is shown floating around the space shuttle as though she's in a womb.
Roma spoilers ahead. The trail leads all the way to Roma. The Netflix film may be autobiographical, but the story is not centered around a boy version of Cuarón. It's focused on a fictionalized version of his own mother and nanny. Sofía is left by her husband and keeps the split a secret from her children. Meanwhile, Cleo is pregnant, away from her family, and without the baby's father. Eventually, she loses the baby, which happens not long before Sofía delivers the "we are always alone" line to her. Only now it seems, they may be together in their loneliness.
In all of the films, Cuarón uses a lot of symbolism. In Children of Men, Kee represents women being the givers of all life. In Gravity, Ryan is reborn after her journey when she climbs out of her ship into a body of water back on Earth. Y Tu Mamá También and Roma both show the ocean as purifying — Luisa swimming and staying behind at the beach after the boys leave, and Cleo rescuing Sofía's children after the loss of her own child. There are connections in travel, water, birth, and more — each instance allowing the woman to be fully on her own.
Some negative reviews of Roma argue that the women don't say enough and that we don't learn enough about Cleo. But a woman should not have to say everything in order for her to be authentic, and not everything has to be spoken aloud. (Plus, that symbolism we talked about? It's pretty loud.) On top of this, not every character or story has to be relatable for every audience member. While one person might see Y Tu Mamá También as a movie about two horny boys or determine that Roma doesn't give the maid character a voice, someone else will connect to Luisa's story or see themselves in Cleo. Gender — of the characters and of the viewer — is no small part of that. As is ethnicity, as is socioeconomic status. These films explore all of that, and it's the reason that they might feel very real to one person, while feeling incomplete to another. That's more than OK; it's welcome in a world where certain perspectives are shared so much more than others.
Cuarón's focus on women in his films is not an automatic indicator that they are all feminist masterpieces. There are arguments that Kee in Children of Men was exploited, and that Gravity defined Ryan by her motherhood. Still, the common thread that runs through the films is clear: A woman's inner psyche is worthy of exploration. She doesn't have to be loud. She doesn't have to make a grand point. She just has to be.