When the online streaming service Netflix expanded its operations and ventured into producing and supporting its own exclusively made films, the Cannes Film Festival declared a new ruling. It decided not to allow the subscription service or any other streaming service to participate in its schedule. The organizers insisted that Cannes wanted to preserve the traditional way of watching and making films.
The ruling received a lot of support, most notably from director Steven Spielberg. In fact, the celebrated American director went on to insist that Netflix films were not deserving of Oscar nominations, either. Director Alfonso Cuarón disagreed. His new and most personal of all his films, Roma, is presented by Netflix.
Cannes never screened Roma, but once both the director and Netflix reluctantly agreed to show the film in some theatres before its online streaming date, it was able to compete in other prestigious film festivals. After its world premiere at The 75th Venice International Film Festival where it won the festival’s highest honor, The Golden Lion, Roma was screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and the Toronto Film Festival, where it received high praise and positive reactions.
With a setting that takes place in 1970 and ‘71, director Cuarón has drawn on his own family life, as he remembers it, as a child raised in the middle-class area of Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood. It’s a love letter to the domestic worker employed by his family. The film is dedicated to Libo, Cuarón’s family servant who helped raised him. She is still alive and remains a part of the family today.
In the film, the young worker is Cleo (non-actor Yalitza Aparicio). Cleo works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) in a household that also includes four children, Sofia’s mother, Teresa (Veronica Garcia), and another maid. Cleo cleans, cooks, serves the meals, takes the four children to and from school, puts them to bed and wakes them the next morning. She’s more than simply a maid, she’s family.
In order to recreate the homes and streets where Cuarón was raised, the director’s attention to detail is monumental. The home’s interior in which the film’s family lives is a practical recreation of the director’s own family home, including the furniture, the design of the individual rooms, right down to the smallest of objects on the shelves. Even the cars parked outside on the street are the same makes and models of vehicles Cuarón remembered were parked there when he was a boy.
But rather than creating a story with a traditional three-act construction to relate those memories and use them as a background to tell an involving dramatic tale, here the background is the tale. In a mostly plot-free narrative, the director observes day to day life by slowly unveiling certain unconnected events that occur throughout the year – an earthquake, a childbirth, a shoreline rescue, and a recreation of the Corpus Christi Massacre as viewed from the relative safety of a second-floor window – with a fade out suggesting nothing more than life ever going onward. It’s like a beautifully shot re-enactment of a documentary. You share time with Cleo and you get to like her, but you learn little from her or about her.
Knowing its history and being only too aware of the rapturous praise the film has already garnered from reviewers and critics around the country, it’s difficult to enter the Spanish language film without a certain degree of influence or expectation based on the overwhelming positive thoughts of so many others. Once seen, it’s also not difficult to understand why many consider Cuarón’s Roma to be the work of a master craftsman while calling the film itself a masterpiece. And technically, much of it is. The meticulous nature that went into every frame of this 70mm widescreen, black and white beauty is clearly evident from the opening shot to the last. Plus, the dreamlike quality of its telling is quite seductive. If you’re not careful, it can lull you into believing you’re seeing something considerably more profound than it is.
But a personal involvement in the making of a film to the degree that Cuarón invests in Roma (in addition to directing, he wrote, produced, edited, and was even his own cinematographer) does not guarantee that all the choices a director makes are necessarily the right ones. In Roma’s case, the decision to make the film without plot and present events in terms of a naturalistic slice-of-life keep us at arm’s length. Throughout, as the camera slowly pans from one carefully framed position to another, giving us the unusual luxury of exploring the screen and taking everything in, there’s an unmistakable feeling of a living, unseen presence behind the lens, ever guiding our attention. It’s a deity who happens to be Alfonso Cuarón. We’re seeing his childhood through his eyes in the beatific style he would like to remember them. But he fails to acknowledge that audiences need to be more than just witnesses, they need to be engaged.
Certainly, the earthquake grabs attention. Plus, the childbirth sequence is compelling, and the drama of the shoreline sequence where both sight and the clarity of sound as roaring waves crash against a woman who cannot swim is momentarily riveting. But other lengthy sequences become questionable. What value is there in seeing repeated prolonged shots of dog poo? And exactly what is meant by viewing a man singing at great length in the foreground lost in his own world while others around him are rushing by each other trying to quell a forest fire?
For most of the time during this visually stunning cinematic slice-of-life you’re passively observing things from a distance; only occasionally are you drawn in. And at 135 minutes, that’s a pretty thick slice.
MPAA rating: R Length: 135 Minutes