Roma lets viewers hear its world before they see it. The latest film from Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También director Alfonso Cuarón opens with a long shot of a tile floor. It’s situated in the courtyard driveway of an upper-middle class family in early 1970s Mexico City, but the audience doesn’t initially know that — Cuarón only offers them a gorgeous, static image. Like the rest of the film, it was shot by Cuarón himself, in black-and-white 65mm, on an Arri Alexa 65. It’s a digital camera that has captivated even some filmmakers usually enamored with shooting on film. Eventually, that camera does move. But initially, as the opening credits stretch out, it just soaks in the tile and the sounds of a neighborhood going about its daily business: shuffling feet, barking dogs, scrubbing brushes, and the occasional car swooping by. Then water covers the tile, reflecting the image of a plane passing overhead, and seemingly waking the film up to the larger world around it.
Roma’s world was built out of memories of a time and place that no longer exists, but Cuarón can’t seem to leave them behind. There’s a precision to his details — the atmosphere of a movie theater during a weekend matinee, the between-song announcements on the radio station that plays in the family car, the bustle of the neighborhood during a summer evening, the alluring men’s magazines positioned at the eye level of a boy on the verge of adolescence. They only could have come from someone on whom the past still exerts a powerful pull. Few studios would back such a bold personal vision, particularly from a director of color. But we live in unusual times, movie-wise. Enter the streaming giant Netflix.
Roma is more episodic than driven by a propulsive narrative, which makes it a tough sell in the mainstream marketplace of movies. So does the fact that it’s a 135-minute, black-and-white Spanish (and Mixtec) language film. But Cuarón comes with a significant pedigree: he’s a six-time Oscar nominee, with wins for Best Director and Best Editing on 2014’s Gravity.
And Netflix would like an Oscar, please. That goal has been obvious from the beginning of its film-producing phase, when it entered the original-film business not with a would-be blockbuster, but with Cary Joji Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation. In 2017, the company made a serious push with Dee Rees’ excellent drama Mudbound, which earned four Academy Award nominations, though it won none and was shut out of most major categories, apart from Mary J. Blige’s Best Supporting Actress nod. The company has won two Oscars — for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2017 and Best Documentary Feature in 2018. Neither is a small accomplishment, but Netflix clearly has more ambitious designs.
Conventional wisdom has it that part of Netflix’s difficulty in earning an Oscar in one of the top five categories comes from the film industry’s distaste for streaming services. Until this year, Netflix has prioritized its subscribers over any potential theater viewers, skipping its original films past theaters entirely, or giving them a token day-and-date release in theaters commissioned for the express purpose of awards qualifications. 2018 saw a shift in strategy. Paul Greengrass’ 22 July and Tamra Davis’ Private Life enjoyed wider-than-usual releases for Netflix films. Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appeared in some theaters a week before its Netflix premiere. Roma is seeing a platformed series of theatrical releases ahead of its streaming premiere on December 14th, with a no-doubt strenuous awards push to follow.
To be fair, it’s a bit ungenerous to suggest that Netflix’s leaders just want a Best Picture Oscar. They clearly want to be in the quality film business. An Oscar would just be a legitimizing sign that their efforts have been worthwhile. Will Roma get them there and allow them to reap the benefits? That will be a matter of debate for awards-season prognosticators from now until the envelopes are opened. But for now — and for as long as streaming services keep trying to create prestige cinema worthy of rave reviews and attendant awards — the viewers are the ones who benefit most from Netflix deciding to put its money and influence behind great filmmaking. Every film like Roma, which likely wouldn’t have made it to such a wide audience without Netflix’s help, is a victory for the audiences who get to see it, and for an industry that sometimes struggles to support distinctive and daring work.
If there’s ever been any doubt that the company could put its name behind a truly great film — and those doubts wouldn’t be fair, given some of the titles listed above — Roma should lay it to rest. Put simply, Roma is a masterpiece, a deeply personal examination of the past from a director who challenges himself with each new project. It’s more biographical than autobiographical. It’s set in 1970 and 1971, when Cuarón was nine going on 10, and its Cuarón surrogate mostly remains on the margins. Instead, he dedicates the film to exploring a life he didn’t live: that of the family’s live-in nanny, a woman from Oaxaca named Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, to whom Cuarón dedicates the film.
Her surrogate here is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, who, like most of the cast, is not a professional actress), a young woman who does much of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing for Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga). When Antonio leaves Sofia — which she tries to hide from their children — Cleo assists with keeping the family going, too. Cleo’s own life is squeezed into the moments around her work for Sofia’s family, a life they don’t see and to which they seemingly give no thought. But dramatic developments on both her personal front and the historical stage eventually bring all their lives crashing together.
Cuarón treats Cleo’s world, and the setting of his own childhood, as territory that can be as perilous in its own way as the vacuum of space he explored in Gravity. Participant Media produced the film, but it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if Netflix hadn’t picked up distribution rights for the completed film. And it certainly wouldn’t have gotten the wide release and awards buzz it’s currently getting.
The marriage between Cuarón and Netflix is awkward in some ways. The film has already prompted debate about whether it has to be seen on the big screen, and Cuarón has asked Netflix viewers both to have patience with its deliberate pace and to please, please turn off motion-smoothing. It’s clear that he accepted the company’s distribution offer not because he loves being able to binge whole seasons of Fuller House, but because he felt Netflix would give his deeply personal film the care and handling it deserves.
For a generation of artistically ambitious filmmakers, Netflix distribution may seem like their best option in an era when small movies struggle to get seen, mid-sized movies struggle to get made at all, and theatrical moviegoing increasingly belongs to big-budget special-effects extravaganzas. For everyone from Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach to Martin Scorsese (whose next film, The Irishman, will be a Netflix release), it’s seemingly been a compromise worth making.
One of the great promises of Netflix in recent years has been that it can provide a home for daring visions. (The way those daring visions disappear into the recesses of the Netflix library after a brief moment of promotion is another issue.) Will this habit continue? Is the moment in which a staggering achievement like Roma can appear preceded by the familiar Netflix “ba-boooom” noise a vision of the future, or a window destined to close if the company’s interest shifts to focus less on earning little gold statues? Only time will tell, but it’s a story worth watching because, for the moment, it’s leading to stories that are impossible to forget.