What is Roma, why is it changing Netflix, and why you should care.
By: Dustin Chase
You will be hearing a lot about the film Roma in the coming weeks leading up to the holidays and the Academy Awards. It’s the latest film from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón who is either known as the guy who directed the third Harry Potter film, reinvented the space thriller with Gravity or the guy behind ultimate road trip flick Y Tu Mama Tambien. Cuarón’s Roma is a Spanish language film, shot in black and white, and attempts to reimagine his own childhood in Mexico. That might sound boring to American audiences, but this film earns the title of a masterpiece because of its creative genius behind the camera and what he achieves in front of it. Roma is a tough sell, Cuarón and producers realized that going in and ended up making a deal with Netflix to ensure this intimate and emotional drama could be more easily accessible.
What is Roma about?
“What I tried to do was honor my sense of memory,” Cuarón said recently at a Q&A in New York. “Memories start to take shape from a detail. I remember, I just don’t know how much is a lie”. Roma takes a focused look at Cleo (played by newly discovered actress Yalitza Aparicio) who represents the woman who helped raise Cuarón and his siblings in their childhood. It’s a film about what you don’t understand as a child, the “one day you will understand” sentiment that parents or caregivers often say to children. Roma is a complex film that might seem simple as we follow this woman around taking care of a family while her own personal struggles often go unnoticed or at least don’t seem equally important. Roma is Cuarón’s way of trying to right that wrong as many of us do when we get older and understand the sacrifice those made to ensure our wellbeing.
What works so well about Roma is that in every culture, society, and part of the world, there is that person that helps parents raise and care for the young. Perhaps it’s a grandmother, an aunt, babysitter or in this case, someone hired and brought into a busy family. Roma is acknowledging those individuals who rarely get more than a couple of lines in most films. It’s stopping to ask, what goes on with that person when they are not taking care of me, what are their hopes and ambitions. Adding to the complexities of the story, Cuarón also explores the separation of social class between Cleo and the family. Combined with what’s happening politically in the time period really helps bring the viewer into Mexico City during 1971.
Roma is changing Netflix
Netflix policy is to buy content for their streaming service to always give subscribers something new to watch. In order to be eligible for The Academy Awards, a film must play in a public theater in Los Angeles or NYC before or at the same time of its VOD date. In the past, Netflix has halfheartedly released movies theatrically to qualify, seemingly uninterested in playing the game. Their biggest issue is not wanting to release a film before the VOD date. Roma appears to have changed their mind as they are campaigning hard for the film and extending its theatrical run into and after it’s Netflix release date. Mudbound last year really helped pave the way, receiving nominations in major categories, showing Netflix they just needed the right campaign formula to compete with the major studios. Roma is a shoo-in to win the foreign film prize at the Oscars, but that alone wouldn’t be reason enough for all the fuss, Netflix has an eye on the big prize.
Cuarón who won best-director for Gravity back in 2013 seems on track to win his second, but at the end of the awards run, the 57-year-old filmmaker might be holding more statues than he can carry. Cuarón not only directed the film, but wrote the original screenplay, served as editor, and when constant collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki couldn’t do the cinematography, he shot the film as well. Also one of the pictures main producers, theoretically if Roma enchants the Oscar voters as it has critics around the globe, Cuarón could walk away with one to five Oscars. Netflix has gotten into the awards game with foreign films in the past and documentaries, but Roma is their biggest gamble it just might pay off if the award buzz drives customers to wonder “What is this Roma film anyway”. Netflix has already said they won’t announce box office business for Roma’s scattered theatrical run, nor do they ever release data on how many times a title is clicked on Netflix or how much of the film is watched by the viewer.
Will You Like It?
“No way a general audience member will be able to sit through that at home,” film critic James Cole Clay of Fresh Fiction said after a second theatrical screening of Roma. Clay argues that optimal theatrical viewing conditions (i.e. like the superb presentation at TIFF or how the Houston Museum of Fine Arts updated their sound system just show the film during its Houston Cinema Arts presentation) are paramount to receive what Roma is offering. “I admired what Cuarón was going for with the film but I still can’t decide if I enjoyed it or not,” Chris Sawin from God Hates Geeks said in a Houston Film Critics Society online discussion of the movie. “I felt like I was bored part of the time and completely floored the rest.”
Cuarón says that when he first approached other studios with the film he always heard the same things, always pointing out the reasons they couldn’t offer him a large push because it was in black and white and Spanish. “When I spoke with Netflix we were talking about the film without the filtering of these other things. We need to defend theatrical, protect and preserve the theatrical experience, it’s fundamental,” the filmmaker said to an audience of Broadcast Film Critics and other filmmakers including Michael Moore and Darrin Aronofsky. “What people are not talking about is diversity. Our theatrical experience has become very gentrified. There is a lack of the world at large being represented on the screens”.
“I don’t know why it was made, for whom, or why a movie so cinematic will be designated to mostly home viewing on Netflix, but I loved the flick and I’m glad we have it.” Adam Sanders, another Houston Film Critic Society member commented. Cuarón’s meticulous details not only made production designers and producers manic trying to find and match every detail from his memory and photos to recreate the house, the street and the world of 1971, but they combed Mexico to find the right actress to play the leading role. Yalitza Aparicio, who never acted before, gives a stunning performance likely having her nominated alongside Lady Gaga and Glenn Close. Aparicio says its important and exciting for her that Roma is going to Netflix. “People who live in my community don’t have the capability or time to travel three hours to the main city where it will be playing at a theater. Films like this don’t stay at the movies for very long, so after a little while they are forgotten and a younger generation does not have access”.
Roma will make its debut on Netflix December 14th as it opens in various smaller art house theaters throughout November.