In a world where the preeminent European film festival has banned Netflix-produced pictures from ever competing, there is a growing industry debate over whether a film that’ll be mostly viewed at home on a streaming service is really a film. Or more precisely if it is really “cinema,” in that abstractly romantic sense, instead of “television.” Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is not only the latest example that defangs this pretension; it sweeps that argument away in a black and white wave of moviemaking bliss. In a year like 2018, it is hard to think of a film that more lovingly or enthusiastically embraces the cinematic vernacular of the last hundred years to tell a story of such intimate delicacy and complementary big screen scope.
Roma is such a sublime achievement in this vein that while it acts as Netflix’s best shot yet to break through to Oscar’s Best Picture race, it also suggests the perfect launching pad for the streaming service to open an original production in a wider release than New York and Los Angeles. For Cuarón’s vision is so softly grandiose that it really should be seen on the biggest screen possible. Like the rolling surf that features so prominently in the film’s third act, Roma is a slow but steady immersion that, for the most patient and least distracted viewer, will sweep you away in a vision that turns mid-20th century domesticity into a 70mm epic.
Set during momentous days of unrest in 1970 Mexico City, Roma is both acutely aware of its time period (Cuarón was born in 1961) and quixotically ignorant of the troubles it skirts. The film could almost be considered idyllic in its intentionally limited vantage of an upper middle class family’s home, if not for the fact that this household is viewed through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the young housekeeper who is far removed from her own rural family. She keeps an averted but sympathetic gaze toward the mother of this home, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and a less compassionate one for the intellectual father who has one foot out the door when we meet him.
Cleo quietly observes the family of six’s many day-to-day troubles from the trivial—the dog keeps leaving excrement in the garage—to the monumental, as the patriarch finally departs for a business trip and never comes home. And slowly, they in turn become dimly aware of Cleo’s own problems, such as she begins complacently dating a local callow youth… and is then made pregnant by him. Yet the film never loses its nostalgic embrace of this whole era in all its rose-tinted fadings, giving equal attention to the day of a student protest turning violent in the streets outside these people’s homes and that weekend when Sofia attempted to distract her worried children by going to the beach. All residencies in memory lane being of similar stature, it is a composition of countless mementos that give the wider tapestry its shape.
Without knowing the full details of Cuarón’s life, it is easy to speculate that Roma is the most personal film to date for the auteur often associated with his dazzling visual dexterity in films like Gravity and Children of Men (never mind, Harry Potter). As the picture is set in the same era of his childhood, and it is well-known Cuarón is the child of a high-achieving family with a father who was a nuclear physicist, much of the daily rhythms of a life that at least offers the illusion of stability are implicit in the picture. Even the opening credits take on the melodic pace of soap water washing in gentle tides across a garage floor, with all the haste of a lazy summer morning (at least for the children watching Cleo work). Yet the implication that you’re in the hands of a master is undersigned when a 1960s jetliner is reflected as flying above the garage’s puddle, suggesting the passing of lost times.
This marriage of the minute with the ethereal is why Roma has such a poetic heft. It is a gradual experience of being indoctrinated as an unofficial member of the family, for both Cleo and the audience. As a deliberate film, it takes almost the entire 135 minutes to realize how much these people mean to each other, just as much as the audience is forced to sympathize with Cleo but still not fully know her anxieties any better than the children she acts as maternal caregiver to more often than their real mother. The kids’ concerns are with dreams of being sailors and fights for attention, while Cleo’s unwanted pregnancy is like a secret saved only for the viewers and Aparicio’s forlorn countenance.
This naturalistic approach, as well as the emphasis on black and white photography, ehoes elements of the French New Wave that was drifting across François Truffaut films made during this era. Yet moments like a Christmas Eve party in the country with other well-to-do Mexican and American families are filmed with all the awe and gusto of a David Lean adventure in a distant land.
Utilizing 65mm cameras, Cuarón acts as his own cinematographer after doing so much iconic Steadicam work with Emmanuel Lubezki on Gravity and Children of Men. But given the personal nature of the film, it both makes sense for it being even more of Cuarón’s hand and also offers a visual contrast to his most ambitious recent efforts. Every bit as reliant on the long, introspective gliding shots that marked those previous triumphs, the visual dynamism is more classical in Roma as well as skewed from a character’s perspective. While the shots of battle in Children had an almost God’s eye view as the characters stumbled through the carnage, the vast wide frame of Roma can be dominated by a single gun coming into startling focus, for it is the only one that matters to Cleo since it is pointed directly at her.
This use of forced perspective and other leisurely paced technical marvels, including Cleo finally actively participating in the troubled waters of her life by entering high-arching Pacific rollers, can also be subverted by a preference for tight editing and bemusing close-ups, such as the parking inside of the family’s tiny garage requiring more cutaways than a space shuttle liftoff.
The union of these filmmaking qualities with the picture’s slowly intoxicating wistfulness for a bygone lifetime creates harmonic unity that is tremendously satisfying, and perhaps the closest a filmmaker can come to creating a celluloid time machine. It is a genuine feat, albeit in a way that is detrimental to the “binging” mentality that has marked Netflix’s multi-billion-dollar success. Roma is to be savored and held onto, and very much celebrated by lovers of film, not content. And it certainly will be—but hopefully on a movie screen near you.
Roma premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and premieres on Netflix on Dec. 14.