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Once Upon a Time in Mexico City: Roma

Updated on March 16, 2019


As a maid, Cleo Gutierrez has work where she gets to observe the behavior of all sorts of people. She works for a physician and his wife in a nice section of Mexico's capitol city in the early 1970s. Roma chronicles several eventful months in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who helps to take care of a household consisting of Antonio (Fernando Gredaiga), his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira), their four children, and their maternal grandmother. That situation is about to change, though, when Antonio heads to a medical conference in Canada. Once there, he announces he's going to stay up north for awhile, leaving Sofia and the help to look after the family. In her free time, Cleo goes to a hotel room with her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who belongs to a paramilitary group. Cleo soon believes that she may be pregnant, and tells Fermin. He responds by walking out on her at a movie, and later adamantly denying the baby is his when she confirms she's with child.

Sofia maintains supportive of Cleo in the ensuing months. They also learn that Antonio has not remained in Canada, and try and keep this from the children. One of them overhears the ladies in conversation, though, and realizes that Sofia and Antonio are going to divorce. Sofia helps Cleo get ready for her baby as the due date draws near. Her mother takes Cleo shopping for baby furniture, not knowing that student protesters and their opponents, whom include Fermin, have hit the streets outside the store. In the midst of the violent confrontation, Cleo goes into labor.


Roma, written, directed, filmed, co-produced, and co-edited by Alfonso Cuaron, is a moving portrait filled with quiet unrest. As Cleo prepares for single motherhood, she sees changes in the world around her. The family arrangement of her employers is about to change, and those for and against the Echevarria government take sides in a battle of both wills and force. Cleo likely has opinions about the events she observes, but she focuses on the family that has given her an opportunity that many of her economic background would not get. Cleo, in fact, behaves so humbly that Sofia has to coax her to accompany the family on a trip to the beach. Roma is special by being quite ordinary, as viewers get to see life from Cleo's point of view. During her pregnancy, she sees the bonds between her and her employer, though those bonds remain largely unspoken. Roma, as a result, is a drama where a love story of sorts grows, and eventually prevails over the events of the day. Cuaron fills this movie with long shots that invites the audience to take in as much of that time as possible.

Prior to seeing this film, I was unfamiliar with any of the cast, but I have learned that Roma marks the impressive screen debut of Aparicio. She has no formal acting training, but she shows Cleo to be a loving soul, always looking to serve her employers in the best way she knows. When Fermin forcefully rejects her, she is sad, but she knows she has another who needs her much more. Cleo shows the greatest amount of emotion at the end of a difficult delivery in the film's climax, but even her reactions are more quiet than others would be in a similar situation. De Tavira also shines as Sofia, a mother who finds herself taking on more responsibility with both her children and with Cleo. It is Sofia who arranges for proper medical care for Cleo. It is she who makes sure Cleo doesn't have to go through this time of change all alone. Cleo may not have a biological connection to Sofia, but the mother cares for her maid as though she were a part of the family. Carlos Peralta portrays Paco, an imaginative young man based on Cuaron himself.


Netflix continues to show that streaming services can not only offer movies as good as those that get a wide theatrical release, they can also win some big awards. Netflix has won Oscars with other films of theirs, but Roma scored this award in three prominent categories - Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film. It would be nice to see a film like Roma on the big screen just to see the beautiful black and white images presented in a larger than life setting. The title itself might suggest to some an Italian setting, but it actually refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood where this movie takes place. Cleo Gutierrez certainly has dreams and aspirations, but she knows she's unlikely to live the way her employers do. Still, she knows what's important in the association between herself and her employer. Cleo may see herself as just a housekeeper, but she is more than that to the family who sees her as a keeper of their home.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Roma four stars. One live quietly touches others.

Roma trailer

© 2019 Pat Mills


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