It's a black-and-white movie in Spanish about a housekeeper in Mexico. A Netflix-produced film, it was only shown in theaters for three weeks. It had no A-list Hollywood stars and no musical score.
What "Roma" did have: a powerhouse director and a moving story based on his own life.
While "Roma" fell short of getting the coveted best picture award, it gave acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón his second Oscar for best director, and the movie won Mexico its first best foreign Language film; it also won for best cinematography.
"It was so well done, well crafted, well written, acted and directed," said Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of media studies at University of Texas at Austin. "The viewer sees everything from the perspective of a maid, which is really innovative."
"Roma" could be described as a labor of love for Cuarón, who won his first best director Oscar for "Gravity," released in 2013. He was the first Latino to win that recognition.
Cleo, the main character in "Roma," is based on Cuarón's memories of Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, the domestic worker who looked after his family and their home since he was 9 months old and inspired his interest in movies with regular trips to the theater.
"What is particularly compelling and unique about the film is that the protagonist is not only a servant, but an indigenous woman," said Robert Irwin, a Spanish professor at the University of California, Davis. "I don't believe I've ever seen a film of this quality that offers a complex leading role to an indigenous actor."
Cleo is one of two domestic workers in the home and the main one taking care of the family's four young children. Though her days are long and her duties seem endless, the movie then weaves in her personal life, as she falls in love and experiences heartbreak. Just as Cleo's life is about to change with an unexpected development, the family's husband and father, a doctor, runs off with his mistress, upending the home's family dynamics.
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In a nod to the starkly unequal societal gender roles, the wife, Sofia, and Cleo are left to pick up the pieces and keep the household together — bound by their love for the kids — while the men in their lives pick up and go.
The movie deftly shows the tension between employers and domestic workers, especially when a clearly stressed-out Sofia occasionally lashes out at Cleo. But it also shows how the women's bonds deepen as they put aside their own pain and put the children's lives first.
Cuarón meticulously recreated daily life in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of Roma — hence the title — with the radio playing English and Spanish-language 1970s hits and the household's mother and father trying to park their big American car in the home's narrow carport.
Though the movie is slow paced, it builds up to some dramatic moments, recreating Mexico's 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, in which the government unleashed right-wing paramilitary groups on student protesters, killing dozens of them.
Yet for the most part, the movie's actions take place inside a home, as people go about their day.
"It appears simplistic, but that’s the beauty of it: There’s nothing simple about it," said Gustavo Vazquez, a filmmaker and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz. Vazquez, who grew up in northern Mexico, gave props to Cuarón for getting so many specific details right, yet making it relatable for many viewers. "It’s a pivotal film in terms of race and class that resonates all over the world."
Digital streaming 'is here'
The reason Berg did not think the academy would choose "Roma" for best picture was because of the unconventional way it was distributed — on Netflix and only briefly in theaters.
"People who make movies, studio executives might be a little worried because they’re used to thinking of movies as big theatrical releases," he said. Academy Award members may have debated, 'What are we doing to theaters? How are we going to sell tickets?" Berg added.
Though it did not win for best picture, it won't be the last Oscar contender distributed this way, said Berg. "Digital screening-streamings are here. 'Roma’s' not a threat. It’s just a different way to go."
Game changer for indigenous actors, domestic workers
"In the context of Mexico, Yalitza Aparicio (who plays Cleo) has become a sensation, not only for representing the acting talent of an indigenous woman, but also for promoting an idea of indigenous female beauty,"' Irwin said.
"The same could be said for supporting actor Jorge Antonio Guerrero, whose nude scene in the film is unprecedented in showcasing indigenous male eroticism. It's already clear that the film is set to become a historical milestone in Mexican cinema history."
Though Aparicio did not take home the best actress award, her performance and her nomination as the first indigenous actress was groundbreaking.
The movie shed a welcome spotlight on domestic workers. In the United States, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has partnered with the film's producers to promote national legislation ensuring basic wages and rights for domestic workers.
Those who praised the film pointed to the way Cuarón gave dignity to a housekeeper's life. In several scenes, an airplane flying overhead is reflected in the water that Cleo is using to scrub the floors. People like her may not get to fly in a jumbo jet, but they deeply affect the lives of those who do — like Cuarón himself.
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