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Roma, Restoration and the Life of the Other

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By Sister Rita Parks

When actor Edward James Olmos began his introduction to the film Roma at the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards, he greeted the audience first in Spanish and then in English, saying, “For those of you that are Spanish impaired, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

Spanish impaired.

A gentle yet unmistakable reminder that too many of us are severely limited in our ability to connect with our sisters and brothers of other cultures. Yet this impairment extends far beyond language. It is an open wound created by centuries of ignorance, arrogance, wrong thinking and cruelty that has diminished us, weakened our ability to see, to hear and to respond to the urgent needs of our time.

As I continue my efforts to come to terms with my own impairment, a film like Roma offers an opportunity to explore our Critical Concerns through the story of a live-in maid of an upper middle-class family in Mexico City.

The film is in Spanish and Mixtec with subtitles (from the outset a challenge to my impairment); the story is based on director Alfonso Cuarón’s memories of his beloved indigenous nanny.  (Yalitza Aparicio, the first-time actor in the role of Cleo, relates that she was once rejected for a retail position because her employer told her, “It’s your skin color.”)

Cleo is an integral part of the family, beloved by both children and adults; at the same time, she is invisible. Yet she is always there: oatmeal served, beds made, laundry finished, floors scrubbed. Roma is stunning in its ability to portray the casual indifference and insensitivity to the servant without whom the household would be helpless.

As Olmos (son of a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother) continued in his introduction to the film, “Like any culture, there are people who are privileged and those that are not.” In the course of the deceptively simple story line, we in the audience are front-row observers of Cleo’s life as a “brown-skinned” servant, as a woman subject to male power, and as someone torn by both personal and societal violence. Yet Cleo moves through her days within and without the gated household with quiet grace, with courage, and with a resilience that invites both reflection and resolve on the part of each of us—the impaired, the damaged, the diminished.

Finally, amid the household clutter and the chaos of Cleo’s world, a strong recurring image is that of water: soapy bubbles wash into the drain of the tile floor that Cleo scrubs each day; her hands wring out the laundry that she hangs to dry on the rooftop clothesline; she watches the children she loves as they play in the rain; and Cleo, who cannot swim, wades into danger because of a greater love.

This visual connection with elemental things echoes the conclusion of Olmos’ introduction to the film as he affirms the power of both affection and compassion. It is also the power of our desire to be healed that is the crucial step toward restoration, as it restored Bartimaeus and Peter, the Canaanite woman and the woman bent over (both of whom remain unnamed in scripture).

Roma is a beautiful film that, like any work of art, invites us into the life of the “other,” to see beyond first sight, and to empower us to move beyond our impairments to communion.