At times, the movie casts a wrenching and desperate pall over the human condition. But during its most ingenious moments, the Oscar-winning drama by Alfonso Cuaron tells a brilliant tale of sacrifice and selflessness through the type of lens often ignored by mainstream Hollywood.
This dualism contrasts the ugly tragedies of patriarchal cruelty and social injustice with the purity of a loyal servant’s love for her adopted family. The Mexican director’s semi-autobiographical narrative thrives because his artistic grace combines real empathy with deep alienation.
Riding the populist and feminist waves, Roma would have been the first movie by a nontraditional studio to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Even if it didn’t take the top prize, the film did win for Best Director, Foreign Language Film, and Cinematography.
“It’s the kind of movie the Academy members want to celebrate right now,” said Richard Rushfield, editor-in-chief of the daily Hollywood newsletter The Ankler.
Voters recognised that viewers are disgusted by the shameless infidelity and paternal rejection, as well as the uplifting, hopeful notes permeating Roma’s sunshine-through-the-rain message.
For its proponents, multiple factors come together to render Roma a stellar movie; poignant storyline, stunning cinematography, and a sympathetic domestic worker protagonist.
“It’s a really beautiful film. As a Mexican who has been able to see my society from the outside,” New York City resident Ximena Rubio said.
“It’s very strong criticism of Mexican society; racism, machismo [and that] men are not accountable but great seductors.”
Rubio said the film’s “double standard” resonated with her. “Cleo is portrayed as a girl and she’s not – she’s a woman.
“She has no voice, while she takes care of the most important things in the household, including the provision of affection for the children, and ultimately their lives.”
The story of an otherwise voiceless woman working for an affluent Mexico City family emerges from a backdrop of political and personal oppression.
Yalitza Aparicio, 25, plays housekeeper Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutierrez, and although the actress hails from Tlaxiaco in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, she actually had to learn the Mixtec language for the parts of the film spoken in an indigenous dialect rather than in Spanish.
On the red carpet on Sunday evening, Aparicio said she was thankful to the people of Oaxaca. “I hope I’m representing you with dignity,” she told viewers of the ABC network before the ceremony.
Beyond sparking conversations about class and race, the film has generated renewed interest in the indigenous languages whose speakers have historically faced discrimination and exclusion.
“There were many complicated scenes in which I had to speak Mixtec [but] despite my origins, I do not speak it,” Aparicio tweeted earlier this month.
“For those scenes, sometimes I had five minutes to learn the conversation to be able to act with the emotion it required.”
Aparicio’s father is Mixtec, and her mother is Triqui, a related ethnolinguistic group from the same part of Mexico. She is the first indigenous woman to receive a Best Actress nomination for the Academy Awards.
Even if most Americans have never heard about these cultures, there are some 150,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca living in the United States state of California alone, most of whom migrated to escape grinding rural poverty in search of better economic opportunities.
While some critics aren’t impressed by Roma’s magical realism, others have scorned the main character’s caste deference to her urban upper-middle-class employer, in spite of her own immense suffering.
Regardless, the film has called attention to issues at the front and centre of global debates on immigration and xenophobia.
The aesthetically amazing Roma cost only $15m to make, though Netflix invested twice that on the promotional effort to land the Oscars for the film.
Its victory could signal a new era in which streaming platforms begin to dominate Hollywood studios in the competition for award glory.
Nicole LaPorte, a Los Angeles-based writer at the magazine Fast Company, said Netflix was “desperate for an Oscar for two reasons”.
“One, to prove to filmmakers that if you make a movie for Netflix, you can win awards and be taken as seriously as anywhere else,” she told Al Jazeera before Sunday’s ceremony.
“And two, the Oscar ceremony is a huge marketing platform that drives subscriptions: if you want to see this year’s Best Picture, you’ll have to sign up for Netflix.”
Netflix fans are already applauding how far the platform has gone in exposing Americans to a more diverse range of film and TV programming.
David Fairley, a statistician with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said he was thankful to Netflix for “bankrolling productions from around the world”.
“It’s great that a company is apparently willing to let foreign directors and writers take the lead and make shows that reflect the values and culture of their countries rather than bending it through a Hollywood/US lens,” Fairley said.
“Americans really need to become less parochial and appreciate the wonders and variety of the rest of the world,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is a good step in that direction. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places.”