The hype was real. Could a foreign, black and white film that came out on Netflix actually win the Academy Award for best picture? It had an Oscar winning director behind it, so why not? As it turns out, the answer was no, but that’s no fault of the film itself. Roma is notable for many reasons, awards accolades aside. Based off of writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s experiences growing up in Mexico City, and following the life of someone who is usually relegated to the background, Roma is a beautiful, if at times disturbing character study. This one takes its time, so pour yourself a glass of wine, get comfortable, and prepare to Netflix and pay attention.
Roma is the story of Cleo, one of a well to do families two domestic workers. Cleo was based on Cuarón’s own family helper growing up, Libo, and according to him, ninety percent of the scenes in this film were taken from his memory. I can’t remember what I had for lunch, so I’m impressed with that level of recollection. Telling the tales of your youth through the eyes and experiences of someone else is certainly a very interesting way to do things and Roma is better off for it. Instead of being the typical tale of a family going through some hard times, and the help being there to get them through it, Cleo’s personal struggles take center stage here, with the problems of her employers pushed off to the side. A family get away visiting some rich friends to escape from their troubles focuses on Cleo’s interactions and standing alongside the other maids, instead of the recreational activities the family is using to try and get through their rough patch. The mother of the house is crying on the phone? We focus on Cloe and how she’s handling the children. Those, along with many other family moments are present through the film, but we are merely passing observers, focusing more on how events affect Cleo while she is taking her own journey.
What makes this all work so well is the cinematography. The way Roma is shot is as if you are a spectator to the events taking place. Wide angle shots abound, and the way the camera moves is very much like how our eyes do. We are looking in on this story just like Cleo is on the outside of the family, as close as they may be. Even when the focus is on Cleo, the framing here very much conveys the sense that the things happening around her are out of her control. This is all very effective in invoking the feeling of being in a position similar to hers.
There really isn’t much to say about Roma, other than it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Cleo’s tale will resonate with those willing to put the time into it, and bore those looking for something more obvious. From the perspective of the craft of filmmaking, it absolutely deserved the recognition it got this past awards season. Cuarón decided to release it on Netflix because he thought that’s where it would have the largest audience, and he was right. The buzz Roma created means more big name filmmakers could start putting their projects on streaming services, shifting the movie viewing experience to its next natural stage. Could this be the beginning of the end for big movie theaters? Unlikely, as “event” movies like Star Wars still demand a large screen for at least the initial viewing. But I’d keep an eye on your local art house theaters, if Roma’s distribution model starts a trend, those can go the way of the dinosaur much sooner than later. Coming from a film whose director also made the must be seen on a big screen Gravity, that’s quite the twist.