This reminiscence by director Alfonso Cuarón of an important year in his own childhood in Mexico City is a joy to watch. It is told from the point of view of Cleo, the family’s live-in nanny – an unusual and welcome perspective. But I found it strangely disquieting, for unexpected reasons.
Cuarón’s portrait of his own dysfunctional family is disturbing, but probably accurate. The parents are selfish, disconnected, sometimes shockingly negligent. The family dog, who spends most of his days chained up in the yard and who is apparently never taken for a walk, seems to be a metaphor for the parents’ attitudes towards all of their possessions, including their children.
Cuarón shows us Cleo’s stoicism and determination, but he doesn’t fully deal with the fact that Cleo doesn’t really have the freedom to do anything else. Both Cleo and the mother face personal crises during the course of the movie. The mother conspiratorially tells Cleo, essentially, “whether you’re rich or poor, all women face life’s trials alone.” But that’s manifestly untrue – the mother has family members, social friends, a whole network she can draw on for support. And she can act out – get drunk, smash up the car – knowing that Cleo will always be there to pick up the pieces. Cleo, though, really is alone. We hear about a mother, but never see her or any other family members. Even the housekeeper, who shares a bedroom with Cleo and seems like a friend, is pretty worthless in the end. Cleo’s stoicism, then, is not a choice, but a grim necessity.
Towards the end of the film, we see a rickety metal staircase that leads to the roof, where Cleo (and all the housemaids in the neighborhood) do the family laundry. Cleo has to negotiate that staircase even when heavily pregnant and carrying a full load of laundry – her employer probably has never been up there. And if Cleo has feelings about the poor behavior of her employers, she can’t afford to let those show. Cleo doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting, as everyone else in the movie does, that she is just an employee who can be fired tomorrow.
Cuarón clearly intended this movie to celebrate the life of the woman who actually raised him. But in the end, he patronizes her like everyone else, praising her for carrying on in the face of some pretty outrageous behavior, which is what I found disquieting. The film is lovely to watch, but maybe too lovely, in situations when a little righteous anger would have been more appropriate.