Imagine if a movie about your childhood was called a staggeringly great, fucking glorious masterpiece. Technically, Roma is completely autobiographical. Cuarón, who wrote and directed the movie, drew heavily on his childhood memories to create Roma. He cast actors who looked like his family members and stocked the movie's house with furniture from his own family members. But Roma is not Cuarón's story — it's Cleo's. Cleo, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, is the indigenous Mexican woman who works as a domestic worker in the family's middle-class household. Roma depicts the world seen through Cleo's eyes.
Essentially, Cuarón explains in an interview with Vanity Fair, he recreated his childhood home and dynamics to better situate Cleo, who is based on the real-life nanny who worked for Cuarón's family, in the right context. Above all, it was crucial to Cuarón that the entire story would center on Cleo. "All of that was to follow the story of the character in the film who’s called Cleo. She was the domestic worker in my home, the nanny, that we end up becoming part of her family, or she becoming part of our family," Cuaron said.
While writing the script, Cuarón consulted the real Cleo: Liboria "Libo" Rodriguez, the woman to whom Roma is dedicated. Or, as he put it to Vanity Fair, the woman who raised him. In their ensuing conversations, Cuarón had to readjust his naive childhood understanding of her situations. He started to see her as a person with an important internal life, not just his "surrogate mother."
"I had extensive conversations with the real-life Cleo. And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation," Cuarón said.
According to Rodriguez, who was interviewed in Variety, Cuarón was also concerned with the mundane details that created a hyper accurate portrait of their lives in the early 1970s. “‘How do you remember this, Libo?’ he said. ‘Help me remember and understand.’ Then it started to become weird. ‘Libo, what did you used to wear? How did you dress?’ Things like that," Rodriguez recalled to Variety.
Rodriguez, now 74, joined Cuarón's family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City when he was nine months old. She came from the village of Tepelmeme in the state of Oaxaca, a six hour's drive from Mexico City. Rodriguez would tell Cuarón stories about her village, where her father played an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame. Rodriguez also took on "these roles that are supposed to be covered by parents," as Cuarón says, and took Cuarón and his siblings to the cinema — outings that Cuarón says oriented him toward his current career path.
For Rodriguez, the experience of having a movie based on her life is surreal. "I never imagined everything I’m living right now, that a film would be based on me,” she told Variety.
Part of the surreality also comes down to the uncanniness of the casting. Cuarón cast each of the roles himself. The search for Cleo was the most exhaustive. He traveled through the cities and then villages of Mexico before finding Aparicio in Oaxaca, where Rodriguez is also from.
“It was immediate,” Cuarón told Variety. “It was one of those things when you meet someone and you say, ‘Please, please, I hope she says yes.”Aparicio said yes. To lend to the intimacy of the film, Cuaron cast Aparicio's real life best friend, Nancy García García, as Cleo's friend in the movie.
Thanks to Roma, Netflix is inching its way toward that coveted Best Picture. In 2017, Netflix won its first Academy Award with the documentary short White Helmets; in 2018, Icarus, a documentary about Russian doping in athletics, took home Best Documentary Feature. But Roma, which lands on the streaming service on December 14, is the first movie set to send Netflix hurtling toward Best Picture territory. Roma already picked up three Golden Globe nominations. It's only up from here.
Roma premieres on Netflix on December 14 and is currently playing at select theaters nationwide.