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The Catharsis and Crisis of ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, which comes to the world via Netflix, is the movie event of the year. Will it matter that you won’t see it on a big screen?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Men, women, and children race into a burning forest hauling pails of water. A revolution rages in the streets and spills into genteel society. A woman storms into the ocean. Hail pellets fall from the sky and are collected like marbles. A pregnant woman is furiously rushed to the hospital. A fleet of martial artists practice swordplay in the desert. Class collides with culture. Sensuality meets violence. A country ruptures. A family dissolves. A woman is abandoned. Love fails. Love prevails. Check it out on Netflix.

I’m talking, of course, about Roma, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical remembrance of his childhood in the titular Mexico City neighborhood in 1970, seen through the eyes of Cleo, a bourgeois family’s caretaker. Roma is arguably the most ambitious and thrilling movie of the year — maybe of the decade, or at least since Cuarón last made a movie, 2013’s Gravity. It is grand-scale moviemaking on intimate terms, with a budget of $15 million, a shooting schedule that exceeded 100 days, and the kind of uncompromised vision that few filmmakers are afforded. Cuarón refused to allow financiers or his actors to read the script before filming began. There was no notes process beforehand. No test screenings afterward. And, on the eve of its arrival, no box office projections. No matter. Roma is a movie history first. It exceeded even my wildest expectations with its depth, sensitivity, and specificity; its interweaving stories of loss and perseverance are deeply realized even while they represent the undocumented memories of the 56-year-old director. But the very powers that allowed its existence also defy its historical antecedents. It is not unreasonable to compare Cuarón to Fellini, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Bergman — international titans of the form always seeking new ways to use the empathic tools of their medium to explore the way they see the world. This is one of the most exciting things that can possibly happen — a masterpiece. Still, weeks before it will be available worldwide to watch on Netflix on December 14, Roma has become a flashpoint.

Roma’s existence at the streaming service, which purchased the rights to the film from financier Participant Media, has created a false panic throughout the movie industry and for moviegoers alike. Despite its pedigree from the Academy Award–winning director who has also made a Harry Potter movie and a modern classic in Children of Men, Roma would almost certainly not have been made by a traditional studio. The limited box office appeal of a black-and-white foreign language period piece with an unknown lead represents a tic-tac-toe for squeamish executives. And Netflix, aspiring awards season player and prestige hunter, is the sort of deep-pocketed outlet that could support a gamble like this. That the film will largely be seen on TVs, laptops, and phones has sent a paroxysm through the movie faithful. Is this a threat to the future of movies? Is missing Roma on the big screen tantamount to movie crime? Would a Best Picture win signal the end of all that we hold dear?

The answer to each question is no. But it’s not without some nuance. Netflix announced last month that it would indeed put Roma and a handful of its other awards-ish movies in select theaters around the world. Wednesday, Roma opens in a select few theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and across Mexico. It’s an allowance with two purposes: One, it satisfies Cuarón, a filmmaker operating with such fealty to the theatergoing experience that he sets a pivotal scene in the film at a showing of the 1969 astronaut drama Marooned; two, it seeks to placate Academy members still struggling with Netflix’s slow, inexorable engorgement of the movie industry. Will it work? It’s impossible to say until February 24, 2019. But Roma is not like Outlaw King, 22 July, or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the service’s trio of films that look and smell like Oscars fare, even if they don’t ultimately feel like them. Roma is bigger, bolder, and almost certain to become the 11th foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture. (Cuarón could also become one of the most honored nominees in history.) Seeing it on Netflix is not a disservice to the film or filmgoing; most people watch the classics at home. It’s why the recent shuttering of the streaming service FilmStruck was such a blow for cinephiles — there’s the possibility for wonder and history at home, too.

But I can’t deny how powerful, how wide and all-consuming Roma played on a big screen when I saw it in September. It’s a cathartic movie — an eater of worlds. Cuarón, who served as his own director of photography in what feels like a crazed self-dare, shot the movie in digital 65 millimeter. It’s a technology that gives the black-and-white photography an uncommon clarity — it’s like seeing the past through binoculars instead of in our mind’s eye. The camera roves, slowly panning horizontally across landscapes, through forests, on city streets, into a narrow garage, and across the sky — it goes underwater and along the ground, tracking a scampering lizard, skipping children, and a rollicking sedan. Cuarón treats the camera like a Gatling gun, swiveling with precision. You don’t have to see Roma on a big screen. I’ve seen just a small percentage of world historical movies on a big screen. But it’s better if you do.

Theatrical movies are rare. They’re not like pop songs or blog posts or episodes of Law & Order. Just 740 movies were released into theaters in 2017. Two-thirds of them earned less than $1 million at the box office. It’s a difficult business getting more and more difficult, as the scale and marketing might of event movies overwhelms virtually any other kind of release. (This is why we got so hot and bothered over A Star Is Born — it felt like a phantom wail from the Spirit of Movies’ Past.) It’s been an ambient, unsolvable pain point for studios and the theater chains for going on a decade. Roma appearing in a few theaters means a few more people will see its majesty in full. But, technically, Roma is going where it was always intended: inside your TV, by way of a subscription service, where it will live, uninterrupted. Until you press pause to get a snack.