This might sound hyperbolic, but here goes: You’ve never seen a movie quite like Roma before.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s newest feature is a sort of memoir, rendered on the scale of a historical epic. To follow up his breathtaking 2013 film Gravity — for which he earned a best director Oscar — Cuarón has turned his camera away from the stars of the Milky Way and toward the streets of early 1970s Mexico City. But even though the filmmaker is earthbound, the scope of his vision remains impressive.
Roma is named for the section of the city where the 56-year-old filmmaker grew up, living with his mother, siblings and the family’s domestic worker. Despite the film drawing from Cuarón’s childhood and the buzz that it’s his most personal work to date, it’s that last person — the nanny and housemaid — who is actually the movie’s main character.
First-time actress Yalitza Aparicio stars as Cleo, a young indigenous woman who cares for a middle-class family that sometimes treats her like one of their own — right up until the moments when they expect her to clean up after their dog, or make some tea, or do the laundry. The black-and-white, Spanish-language movie is essentially plotless; it follows Cleo’s life across part of 1970 and into 1971, as she faces heartbreak and navigates a pregnancy, all while working for a family that starts to unravel after the father abandons his wife and four children. The character of Cleo is based on a real-life woman who helped raise Cuarón, named Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, and the picture is dedicated to her. Roma is Cuarón’s film, but it’s her story.
And soon, millions of people all over the world will have the opportunity to experience that story. Thanks to a noteworthy distribution deal, Roma is set to debut on Netflix worldwide on Dec. 14. It’s one of several recent films to bear the Netflix brand — along with the Coen brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King — that represent the streaming service’s attempts at Hollywood prestige. But more than any other Netflix original film, Roma has a real shot to be taken seriously at the Oscars and score the company a much-coveted best picture nomination.
To qualify for Oscar consideration, a film has to get a theatrical release, and for Netflix films in the past, that’s usually meant a limited theater run that starts the same day that a feature becomes available to stream. So you can either plunk down the money for a movie ticket, or simply stay home and catch the same showing from the comfort of your couch, free of charge — aside from your Netflix subscription fee, of course.
For the upcoming awards season, though, Netflix is changing its strategy, particularly for Roma. Cuarón’s latest actually opens in select theaters in New York City, Los Angeles and Mexico on Wednesday, roughly three weeks ahead of when the movie will show up on Netflix users’ home screens. It’s the most obvious bid yet by Netflix for one of their movies to be seen as, for lack of a better word, legitimate in the eyes of Oscar voters. And if you’re able to see Roma in a movie theater — additional showings will start in U.S. cities, Toronto and London on Nov. 29 — you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity.
No one likes to be lectured about how to watch their entertainment, but if you’ll please allow me to do just that: Roma is best experienced on the big screen. Cuarón said exactly that in a statement when Netflix announced the release tactic — while also being open to viewers watching at home.
“Seeing Roma on the big screen is just as important as ensuring people all over the world have the chance to experience it in their homes,” the director said. “Roma was photographed in expansive 65mm, complemented by a very complex Atmos sound mix. While a movie theater offers the best possible experience for Roma, it was designed to be equally meaningful when experienced in the intimacy of one’s home.”
Now, while that statement is perfectly worded to not alienate Netflix, I’m sure it’s true that watching Roma at home will still be moving and powerful. It’s a lovingly made film, and there are some genuinely devastating moments that will no doubt make an emotional impact, regardless of the size of the screen. But this movie is a technical marvel, and if you really want to appreciate it in full, you should give yourself over to it entirely.
Shot by Cuarón himself, the black-and-white cinematography is astonishing, as lush as it is crisp. The camera doesn’t seem to miss a detail, whether it’s taking in a view of mountains, panning down a crowded block loaded with extras or spying inside of the house where Cleo works. And that house itself is a testament to just how dedicated Cuarón and his crew were to the production: Speaking at Telluride Film Festival in September, the auteur said the house in the film is a replica of his childhood home, filled with “70% of the original furniture,” recovered from various family members. Watching the family and Cleo interact in that house is about as close to stepping inside of a memory as a moviegoer can get.
A number of images feel instantly iconic. One gorgeous shot inside a movie theater is practically begging to be included in an Oscars montage about the Power of Movies come February. There’s a massive set-piece that’s sure to be remembered as the movie’s signature sequence, in which student protests are met with horrible violence; Slate’s Dana Stevens beautifully described it as “a historical photograph come to dangerous life.”
The sound, meanwhile, completely blankets the theater. Seemingly simple touches like the white noise of an overhead plane — a regular presence all throughout the film — are transportive. The opening sight and sounds, of a tile floor covered in suds as Cleo washes it, are vivid enough to lull you into feeling like you’re at a shore; when the movie actually takes you to the beach, at its emotional climax, the waves sound as though they could swallow you whole.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any director capture a city in quite the way that Cuarón captures the Mexico City of his youth. Roma is panoramic in the purest sense of the word — it might very well be the single most immersive film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. It’s a truly stunning achievement, and a touching tribute to a woman and the effect she’s had on those closest to her. This is the story of one life, lived among many. Why shouldn’t that be admired on a big screen?