By Ray Pride
The more personal and specific Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” is about childhood memories, the more universal it becomes. It is patient and magisterial and loving, wrapped around a fistful of figures living their lives while Mexico transforms around them. History is in their hands, small and large. The children are sheltered: the women are not, including chichi Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother, and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s indigenous Mixtec domestic servant from a Oaxacan village.
Colonia Roma is the middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City where Cuarón grew up around women, including his mother, grandmother and a housemaid who tends to four siblings. His influences are wide: notably, the masterful Mexican filmmaker has taken exemplary notice of Italian neorealism and especially the 1950s black-and-white movies of Federico Fellini (who made a movie called “Fellini’s Roma”). Other parallels: unflinching widescreen Romanian movies like Cristi Puiu’s “The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu”; Edward Yang’s Olympian patience in capturing family life in “Yi Yi”; and the vital urban life of his own prophetic masterpiece, “Children of Men.” (Cuarón recently name-checked Alain Tanner’s bittersweet seriocomic masterpiece, 1976’s class-straddling “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.“) “Roma” also has a lightly surrealist pulse, providing a succession of small, desiccated raptures, with details and contrasts, gestures and bits of repeated behavior evoking constant surprise and delight.
The production peopled the streets of his childhood with teeming crowds, and found a building to turn into a set approximating his 1970-71 home. Outside, near and distant, the sound of Mexico City, of the greater world, rackets, muffled. (Some dog or other always has a complaint out there.) Cuarón solicited furnishings and mementos from relatives, including his grandmother’s favorite chair. Shooting for 108 days with a reported $15 million budget, Cuarón employed a 65mm digital large format, and his camera is restless, its motions not always defined by what the “story” in front of us seems to demand. Jean-Luc Godard declared in the 1950s that “le travelling est affaire de morale,” or “tracking shots are a question of morality,” and Cuarón, performing as his own cinematographer, flexes that definition with each movement. The camera is an active, serial somnambulist, prowling, inscribing physical space for the viewer’s accruing experience. It’s a progressively mesmeric effect, the motions like the eyes of a dreamer who must attend to every detail, hoping to hold fast the slippery, slipping-away instant. (“Like a ghost that’s observing, looking at the past,” Cuarón has said, “as if it’s haunting you.”)
“Roma”’s power comes from more than a generous canvas: I saw it at a screening room where the gorgeously measured sound design played as densely and emphatically as that of any movie in memory, all the way through the languorous final shot. One key passage of sound: there is a forest fire near an estate where a holiday party is being held, and it elegantly suggests the ending of Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” its beauty coming as much from sound and on-screen music as it does from its elemental horror. (Not to mention the depiction of the downstairs life of servants versus the upstairs party only moments before.) Fire, fire—“Fuego, fuego, el bosque está en fuego!”—symbolic and literal, mindlessly incendiary. (Later: gunfire, gunfire.)
These lives are surrounded by otherworldly calm as well as clamor. Serene yet fierce, loving, forgiving, melancholy, “Roma” is rooms and streets, remote villages and metropolitan movie palaces, faces and faces and faces. Dogs everywhere. Human cannonballs. Rude caskets by a flooded ditch, for grown-ups, for babies. The occasional earthquake. A street massacre of students. There is blood and birth and gunfire and the eternal pull of the ocean itself, the great, sweeping, amniotic yet deadly sea.
Barry Diller says the “movie business is finished,” whatever evidence films like “Roma” offer that filmmaking, decidedly, is not. Diller, who transformed the industry as a studio executive for Paramount and Fox in the 1980s and 1990s, says that an attempt to compete with Netflix is a “fool’s errand.”
“Roma,” with an artist at the height of his ambition and his talent, is bright anomaly, with Netflix, in essence, competing with itself. Netflix wants this grand, possible masterpiece to be seen by a handful of people around the world at the optimum presentation for which Cuarón designed his movie. The streaming juggernaut purchased worldwide rights to the 135-minute, Spanish-language, black-and-white widescreen family epic from producer Participant Media, but also craves awards recognition, not limited to Oscar. Cuarón was promised a theatrical run, with a few 70mm prints, before the film arrives in the 190 countries, territories and duchies where Netflix has planted its flag.
Would that 70mm “Roma” be an experience a step up from the one I’ve seen? Or is “Roma” a digital cinema package projected on several other smaller screens for a few, limited seances? Is “Roma” what peoples your flatscreen, your iPad, your telephone? Man, I want to see it once more, big and loud. Still, I hope in whatever format it passes before a mesmerized viewers’ eyes, that “Roma” is just “Roma”: a passionate, haunted, great movie.
“Roma” is on Netflix.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.