I’ve had a hard and fast rule when it comes to Netflix movies on this site: they don’t get full reviews unless they get released theatrically in my city before they start streaming. This is largely because I believe in theatrical exhibition as being central to film culture and that theatrical windows should be preserved because of that. Premiering movies on the small screen is contrary to my vision of what “real” movies are and frankly it annoys me that movies like the latest Coen brothers movie and the latest Paul Greengrass movie have been denied all but the most token of releases just because Netflix wants to disrupt the theatrical distribution model. Amazon has long found ways to provide a win-win for everyone by giving their movies real theatrical releases before debuting them on their streaming platform and I see no reason that Netflix can’t do the same. Obviously I’m not deluded enough to think that my amateurish little blog with minimal readership is going to sway industry trends at all, but there are principles at play and I’m not going to play ball with this company if I don’t have to. Enter Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the most high profile Netflix acquisition to date and the movie that led to a widely publicized standoff between the streaming giant and the Cannes Film Festival. I debated whether or not I’d break my rule if I had to for this movie but fortunately it came in under the wire and opened at a local theater all of seven days before its Netflix debut. That’s far from a real release window but it’s better than the day and date nonsense they’ve been doing so I’ll play along for the time being.
The title “Roma” refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, which is one of the more upscale sections of the city. Set in 1970 and 1971, the film focuses in on a single house in this neighborhood and specifically on a woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works in this house as a live in maid/nanny. The lady of the house is named Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist and mother of four, who is becoming increasingly estranged from her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). One summer day Cleo and the house’s other maid named Adela (Nancy García) go on a double date with Adela’s boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) and his cousin Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). One thing leads to another and next thing you know Cleo finds herself pregnant with Fermin’s baby. Fermin is not terribly enthusiastic about this and it becomes clear almost immediately that he’ll be a deadbeat. As such the film follows Cleo as she starts to navigate her role in this family in crisis and her own impending motherhood.
Roma is plainly autobiographical insomuch as Alfonso Cuarón was a child would have been a child of about ten when this is set and lived in a similar domestic situation, but film is not told from the perspective of the kids at all and really isn’t terribly interested in them. Instead he seems to be looking back and re-considering through fiction the lives of the people who raised him, particularly his nanny, who I’m assuming is the “Libo” that the film is dedicated to at the end. The film is certainly interested in class differences but not necessarily “class warfare.” The family at the film’s center have their blindspots and moments of insensitivity around Cleo but they almost never completely let her down and often surprise both her and the audience in being understanding about certain developments and helping her in certain ways. The movie also isn’t terribly interested in highlighting the various societal ills that have led to the wealth inequality on display and while it does show some of the challenges that Cleo faces it isn’t a “poverty porn” movie that’s going out of its way to show street life or overt lower class misery. Cleo’s problems are perhaps a bit more existential; she has limited options in life and is in certain ways giving up a life of her own in order to live with more or less raise someone else’s kids.
Roma was filmed on a budget of about fifteen million dollars. Not a large amount really in the grand scheme of things but certainly a large amount for a movie about Mexican class divisions starring a bunch of non-actors and utilizing a somewhat episodic structure and without an abundance of traditional expository dialog. As such Cuarón has opted to film this film with a certain glossy richness rather than the gritty documentary look that is often used to depict the lives of people like Cleo. The film is shot in black and white and in widescreen and Cuarón has taken great pains to really impress with almost every composition in the movie and pulls off some really impressive shots. He’s also taken full advantage of modern surround sound technology to capture a lot of small details that most other movies wouldn’t bother with, combined with the fact that the movie has no score really makes you feel like you’re in the same world as these characters.
So Roma is clearly a very well-crafted movie, and there is something unique about that given that these movies with non-actors are generally made in a looser fashion and the visual grammar that Cuarón has built is impressive. I also think there are some interesting ideas behind the film and that watching Cuarón use the tools at his disposal to bring his memories to life is interesting to watch. And yet, I still feel like there’s something missing here because I kind of ended up respecting the movie more than I really liked it. Part of this might simply be that while the movie certainly gave me an idea of its main character’s life and aspects of her personality I never quite felt like I truly knew her on any deeper level, which is a problem given that this is essentially a character study. I’m not exactly sure how this would have been accomplished without resorting to expository dialogue that would have clashed with the style, maybe just adding in another aspect to her life. The other thing that might have hurt this for me a little might simply have been expectations. Ever since it screened in Venice this thing has been so heavily praised that anything short of the second coming of Citizen Kane would have probably disappointed me a little, and indeed this small-in-spirit little movie about life in 1970s Mexico maybe doesn’t have quite the oomph of something that would really scream greatness to me. That, I suspect, is probably going to be a problem it’s going to have more generally and there may well be a lot of people who wouldn’t normally inclined to give a black and white Spanish movie a chance who will try to watch it on Netflix and turn it off after 30 minutes when “nothing happens.” That’s unfortunate because this is a movie that generally does reward your patience, but be ready to take it on its own terms.
**** out of Five