Roma is a semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Alfonso Cuarón. It’s the most personal film the director has made, and it was picked up for distribution by Netflix earlier this year. It went on to win the top honor at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion. It seems poised to go all the way at the Academy Awards, and yet the majority of people will never get the chance to see it in a movie theater. Is Roma something suitable for home viewing, or should you make the effort to see it theatrically?
Roma is set in the early 1970s in Colonia Roma in Mexico City. Cléo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a maid/nanny for an affluent family, and we spend a year in her life. We follow her as she cooks for the family’s children, cleans the house, takes care of the family’s dog, and we ultimately learn a lot about this family through her eyes. The family’s marriage is falling apart before her eyes and the wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) as she figures out what to do next. We also follow Cléo as she deals with an unplanned pregnancy, and confronts the idea of what she wanted her own life to be, after living in the shadow of this family for so long.
Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation, and this is one of the best performances this year. She has never acted before and has said she doesn’t consider herself to be an actress. It is unknown if she’ll ever act again, but she absolutely should. It’s clear she understands what it means to give a nuanced, subtle and yet emotionally gut-wrenching performance, but at the same time, she doesn’t look like she’s trying. She looks like she really could be anyone, and we’re just watching the day to day life of this person designed to represent the everywoman. Marina De Tavira, as her boss, also has several standout moments, but this film totally belongs to Aparicio.
Cuarón, who made Children of Men and Gravity, takes the same kind of visual storytelling that wowed you in those films and applies it to this very small, intimate story. First of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. It’s shot in glorious black and white, and it often feels like a painting brought to life. It’s set in this small Mexican village, and even though it’s in black and white, it feels unbelievably lush and vibrant. It’s also subtitled, and Aparicio is going back and forth between speaking Spanish and indigenous dialect Mixteco. It’s clear this story would not feel as authentic if this were in English.
Cuarón is the master of the long take, and sometimes there is ultimately too much going on in one frame to notice everything on one viewing. For instance, a trip to a department store is interrupted by a violent political protest in the streets. As we watch this massive, horrific moment unfold, the camera never cuts. He also leaves the camera on Aparicio and gives her the time to let moments land in a way that a director in a hurry would not. This movie runs well over two hours, and every big moment feels authentic and earned because of the smaller moments.
Netflix is giving Roma its widest theatrical release ever, showing in over 600 screens globally. It’s great because this really should be seen on the big screen. If one takes the proper precautions and turns themselves away from all distractions –– shut the phone off, turn the lights off, etc., you can easily enjoy Roma at home. It’s a movie that you must be patient with, as it isn’t super plot-driven. It’s about the big and small moments in life, and the impact they have. Roma is visually breathtaking, emotionally haunting storytelling, and definitely earns its spot in the awards conversation. But, if you can see it in a movie theater, you absolutely must.