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Light stories: Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón

Class differences in lighting and the freedom to use it.

Published: 4 Mar 2019
- Turn off the light. Señora Teresa doesn’t like us keeping them on.
- Señora Teresa is so difficult! I bet she’s spying on us right now. [...]
- She looks after us.
- She makes sure we’re not wasting electricity.

With Roma, Alfonso Cuarón won three Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film. One of the merits of this original Netflix film is its portrayal of the difference between classes in Mexico in the early 1970s. It does this through the depiction of details rather than open commentary and light is one of those details.
Light stories: Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón

Director Alfonso Cuarón (S) and lead actress Yalitza Aparicio on the set (© Netflix).

Cleo, the main character, works with her cousin Adela as a maid for a middle-class family in a residential neighbourhood of Mexico City. The dialogue quoted above accompanies a sequence in which Cleo turns off a series of lights in the sitting room at the home of her employers, so that only one lamp and the lights outside remain on. Then, when she goes back to the bare room in the annex she shares with Adela, her first worry is to switch off their one and only light bulb and light a candle instead.

The difference in the kind of lighting available and the freedom to use it is clear. On one hand, there is an excessive number of light fittings that can even be left on all night, perhaps as a deterrent for potential burglars; while, on the other, the two maids feel they are breaking the rules if they keep just one light bulb on, even if they are still awake and active. The “official” reason for these rules is to save energy. But that is clearly ridiculous given the way their employers behave. Nevertheless, Cleo and Adela seem to take them seriously, even if they joke about the idea of Señora Teresa keeping an eye on them.
Light stories: Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón

A still from the film (© Netflix)

From the end of the nineteenth century until today, light has been an indication of social emancipation. In ancient times, the idea of extending daylight was seen as something miraculous. The Old Testament story of God making the sun stand still so Joshua and the tribes of Israel could defeat their fleeing enemies on the way to Jerusalem, is just one example. For many of us, military manoeuvres do not feature in our daily lives, but the availability of light at any time of the day is part of what allows us to live the way we want to.