Spell “Roma” backwards, and what you’re left with is “amor,” the Spanish word for love.
While “Roma” may technically be a film, in essence it’s a love letter. The sender: filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The recipient: Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, Cuarón’s childhood nanny to whom the film is dedicated.
The languid, black-and-white, Spanish-language movie inspired by Libo’s life and Cuarón’s youth is an amalgam of memory — some sweet, some wrenching — and tenderness distilled into 2 hours and 15 minutes of screen time.
Its star: Yalitza Aparicio, a 25-year-old woman from Tlaxiaco, Mexico who never intended to act. She was set on becoming a preschool teacher when her then-pregnant sister, Edith, who is a performer, implored her to audition in her place. She was resistant and nervous.
“Once I finally walked in, what I felt was a little bit of embarrassment, maybe, a little bit of fear,” Aparicio said through a translator.
At the time, Aparicio didn’t know Alfonso Cuarón. She told Deadline that she hadn’t seen any of the feted filmmaker’s movies, not even “Gravity,” which swept up several Academy Awards in 2014.
While she was largely unaware of him, the opposite was true: He’d struck upon familiarity. In Aparicio, Cuarón, who’d embarked on a lengthy search for a woman who resembled his former nanny in look and spirit, found his Libo.
When Aparicio accepted the lead role as Cleo, a domestic worker deeply enmeshed in the household and hearts of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City, Cuarón told media outlets she said, “I have nothing better to do.”
Now, she’s an Academy Award nominee, the first indigenous Mexican woman to receive a nod for best actress. Her Oscar nomination is one the 10 “Roma” racked up. As it turns out, Aparicio’s talent, along with intersections between her world and that of Cleo, helped her breathe life into Cuarón’s vision to stunning effect.
Not that it was always easy. At the start, Aparicio, who has no acting experience, was anxious.
“At first, I was very nervous when the cameras started rolling,” she said, “and in fact, in that first scene where you first only see my feet, I felt myself shaking because I was so nervous, and I thought to myself, I better figure out how to calm myself down.”
She did figure it out, rather swiftly.
“I went through this process of just trying to imagine that the cameras weren’t there and that the crew wasn’t there,” she added, which “became a very natural process for me — to just step on set, forget that everybody else and the cameras were around me, and to just inhabit the character of Cleo.”
“Roma,” which has a loose story line, is largely a character study, a meditation on Cleo, who’s based on the real-life Libo, and her ties to the family she tends to, based on Cuarón’s own family. Atmosphere and emotional truth are important; plot, less so. The film itself is poetry — spare and evocative.
“One of the most difficult things for me was the fact that of course, as you might know, we were not shooting with a script,” Aparicio said. In an unconventional move, Cuarón withheld the script from the cast, instead doling out bits of information and dialogue to actors before filming. “And there were scenes where I had to speak Mixtec,” a language spoken in some parts of Mexico, “and I’m not actually fluent in Mixtec. And because of the nature of the impromptu character of some of the scenes, I would arrive on set and Alfonso would say, perhaps, ‘now we’re going to shoot a scene where you guys are talking about this, and you guys can go ahead and practice while we set up the lights.’”
Sometimes, she noted, she might only receive 10 minutes to prep before the cameras started rolling. But in a sense, Aparicio’s upbringing prepared her to play the part. Her mother is a domestic worker who’s performed many of the same tasks Cleo does in the film: cooking, cleaning, caring for another family’s children. In Mexico, it’s common for middle-class families to employ women who take on a combined role of housekeeper and caregiver. In “Roma,” there is palpable love between Cleo and the family she cares for — a family that is undergoing a painful splintering — particularly in sweet scenes with the children. Aparicio recalls a similar closeness between her mother and the children she cared for.
“We all — myself and my siblings — always understood my mother’s dedication for the children that she looked after, and in fact she really encouraged us to see ourselves as equals. For them, we were all brothers and sisters,” she said, however, “it wasn’t until I actually made the film that I came to understand why my mother was so devoted to the children of these other families as well.”
Still, a housekeeper or nanny is ultimately there to do a job, and in “Roma,” one never forgets that Cleo is an employee, not kin. The class divide is stark, and the movie has sparked conversations about the treatment of domestic workers and the challenges indigenous people face. Political and social issues are woven throughout the film, named after Roma Sur, the neighborhood in Mexico City that served as the setting for Cuarón’s youth. He recreates brutal clashes between government forces and student protesters that occurred during his childhood in graphic, grueling scenes.
“I actually think that politics is part of everyday life, and because the film is about everyday life, I think it’s inevitable that Alfonso also touched upon politics,” Aparicio said, “and particularly the events that have happened in Mexico that have left enduring marks, enduring wounds in the political life in the country.”
What’s next for Aparicio, the schoolteacher-turned-actor? She isn’t certain. But through her role in “Roma,” she’s learned that while a film set isn’t a classroom, it still offers an opportunity to instruct.