It is a strange title given the fact that the central family upon which this film focuses are upper-middle-class citizens, who not only live in a house with 3-4 servants, but who also have a constantly defecating dog, Borros, as well as several birds and 4 children, this family supported by a doctor father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and his rather passive, biochemist professor wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), along with her mother Teresa (Verónica García). In fact this large family is mostly being cared for by their house-keeper (Yalitza Aparicio), who lives in this menagerie mostly as a kind of beloved slave. Throughout the opening credits of the film she washes-down of the home’s entry-way, the dog’s and bird’s abode, which is followed by her desperate attempt to gather up all the dirty laundry before the time arrives for her to pick up the children from their various schools, re-deliver them home, help, with her servant friend Adela (Nancy Garcia) to serve-up dinner, and then, in the very next scene, wash out their clothing on a roof-top eyrie, from where we glimpse others like her performing the very same tasks.
The director does not, at first, even hint of the abuse she receives, since, in part, Cleo is so pliable and loving that you can’t immediately recognize her condition. She appears more as a trusted and caring nanny that anything else, until Cuarón very gradually helps us to perceive her working conditions, particularly when, at one moment, her youngest charge talks about an imaginary past life as an aged man before he was born, when he claims he was a air-pilot who died in a crash, laying down on a cement protrusion where Cleo is busy cleaning the family laundry, pretending to be dead.
One of the wonders of Cuarón’s film is that you never know what the next frame of the film might reveal. Suddenly, upon her youngest charge’s insistence that he has died in a previous life, the wonderful Cleo lays down on the same cement abutment, lying head to head to with the boy, insisting that she too is now dead. We immediately realize, however, that her notion of “dead” is something different from the boy’s imaginative rumination, that she is quite literally feeling so tired that she might as well be dead; and when she proclaims that it feels good, we comprehend that she has simply not ever had enough rest.
Yet here, again, Cuarón reveals that their timing is terribly bad, for that very afternoon the tragic Corpus Christi massacres of young protesting students occurs in the same neighborhood in which they happen to be shopping. In those shootings nearly 120 young people were shot down by paramilitary troops, including, in this case the young now-fascistic Fermín, who enters with others, the very shop where Cleo is attempting to buy her crib, to shoot down a couple of students who have attempted to escape the violence.