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A visually stunning drama about a domestic worker's life in 1970s Mexico.

On Netflix | 2018 | R | 2h 15m

Genre: Art Cinema, Autobiographical, International

Why I watched: Like many cinephiles, I eagerly awaited the release of Alfonso Cuarón's much-hyped film Roma, which pushed to Netflix last December. The film was written, directed, and filmed by Cuarón, who notably brought us Y Tu Mamá También (2001; on Netflix), Children of Men (2006; on Netflix), and Gravity, for which he won the 2014 Academy Award for best director. 

You might also like: Y Tu Mamá También is one of my favorite movies, both for its stunning shots of Mexico and story of adolescence. The racy coming-of-age indie follows two teenage boys Tenoch and Julio as they attempt to seduce an older woman, Luisa, with a beach-bound road trip. Starring a very young Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, the drama broke box office records in its native Mexico. (And caused a lot of uproar in America for its, um, very steamy scenes.)  Like Roma, the screenplay is in part autobiographical, co-authored by Alfonso and his brother Carlos.


Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) cradling Sofía's children to her side.

"Netflix finally cracked the Academy Awards," The New York Times announced on Tuesday, when the Academy announced its nominations for the 2019 Oscars, and the streaming platform received its first-ever nomination for best picture. But that isn't the only first for Roma, auteur Alfonso Cuarón's artful autobiographical project. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays the film's lead Cleo, is the first indigenous person to be nominated for best actress. Gabriela Rodriguez is the first Latina to produce a best picture contender. Cuarón is the first to be simultaneously nominated for direction and cinematography, as well as original screenplay. And Roma is the first Mexican film to be nominated for both best foreign language film and best picture.

So is it worth the hype? Yes. Yes, it is. 

Roma follows a middle-class family held together by their domestic worker Cleo, an indigenous woman who spends her days cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and caring for four children who are not her own. Set over the course of a single significant year, we watch as the relationship between Cleo and the family's matriarch Sofía (Marina de Tavira) shifts as a result of both women finding themselves alone in the act of mothering: Cleo becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and Sofía's husband leaves her for his younger mistress. While their relationship evolves beyond the standard employee–employee one, it's challenging to define the connection the two women have at the end of the film, which is not so much friendship as it is understanding, a willingness and need to live their lives alongside one another.

Cleo is based on the Cuarón family's real-life nanny Liboria "Libo" Rodríguez, a Mixtec woman from the village of Tepelmeme in the state of Oaxaca, to whom the film is dedicated. Cuarón told Variety that he'd wanted to make an autobiographical film for more than a decade, but it took time for him to recreate his memories of growing up in Mexico City during the 1970s. And it took many conversations with Libo to imagine her life during the same period, especially the aspects that he'd been unaware of because of the racial, social, and generational divides that prevented him from understanding her when he was a child. Roma is not Cuarón's nostalgia project. (Perhaps that was Y Tu Mamá También.) Rather, it's an adult's reconstruction of memories of a woman he didn't really know until later; an individual, a person with her own internal life that does not revolve around caring for him and his family. 

When Cuarón began drafting the screenplay, he claims that there were three things he knew with certainty: Roma would be centered on Libo, it would stem from his memories, and it would be filmed in black and white. The latter fact lends to the remembered-memories feel of the film, and also makes it a shame that it didn't have a widespread theatrical release. (AMC and Regal Cinemas will not be screening Roma because of its availability on Netflix.) If you aren't able to see the film in theaters, where the black and white images will look as crisp as they were meant to, here are a few tips to make the best of your home viewing experience: turn off motion smoothing, set the color temperature to normal, and turn on HDR. 

The film has been called a "meditation" by many critics, and I think that's exactly right. The shots are long and the camera often still, hovering over water as it washes down the drain or watching Cleo chase the children down a long street toward a movie theatre. As I watched Roma, even though it's set years and miles away, I had the feeling that I was somehow simply watching ordinary life as it unfurled around me. And I think that's what, in part, so deeply affected me about this film: Roma offers us the chance to bear witness to, rather than simply consume, someone else's story. I hope you're as moved by it as I was. 


Cleo and Sofía (Marina de Tavira).


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