Some of the most striking scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, Roma, take place in the lonely, enchanted dark of a movie theater — which is a place where you may or may not watch Roma itself. Over the past few months, as the film has been rapturously received at festival after festival, a lively debate has ensued about how and where the average viewer ought to watch this movie, which has been in limited theatrical release for the past few weeks but is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday. (“Don’t Screw This Up,” the Seattle publication The Stranger warned, “See Roma in a Theater.”) A few days ago, Cuarón himself weighed in. “The complete experience of Roma is unquestionably in a movie theater,” he said at a Los Angeles screening on Monday night, before backpedaling a tad. “Nevertheless, I think the experience of watching the film at home will have the same emotional impact.” Awards season has a way of turning art into sport and making debate more combative than necessary (in this case, going so far as to turn one experiential version of a film against itself), and so Cuarón’s relatively ambivalent comment was reported with headlines like, “Alfonso Cuarón Says Roma Is Better in Theaters.”
But Roma, as prismatic and discrepant as life itself, makes either of these points better than any polemical tweet or headline ever could. For the up-with-Netflix camp, Roma contains some winks at the fact that plenty of people who go to the movies aren’t exactly there to watch the movie. (Early in the film, when the film’s protagonist, Cleo, is on a double date, her coworker Adela breaks off to follow her boyfriend into the theater; “I’d rather play in the dark,” she says. Multiplex and chill!) But for other characters in this densely populated cinematic tapestry, the movie theater serves as a sacred space of creative inspiration, or even emotional refuge. In the middle of Roma, we see some boys (including Pepe, a character who seems to be a version of young Cuarón himself) convince their grandmother to let them see Marooned, the 1969 lost-in-space sci-fi flick starring Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman. As the astronauts’ floating bodies fill the screen, Pepe is mesmerized; anyone who remembers Cuarón’s previous film, Gravity, might let out a sweet, knowing chuckle.
Cleo’s experience at the movies, though, is more somber. Framed in a deep-focus panoramic wide shot from the back of the theater, so that our eyes take in both the larger-than-life action on screen and the more human-scaled drama in the seats (“Gregg Toland wept,” I wrote in my notes), Cleo whispers to her boyfriend, Fermín, that she thinks she is pregnant. He’s quiet. She waits for him to react. Instead he stands up from his seat and announces that he’s going to the restroom. But the movie’s almost over, Cleo protests. No matter … does she want an ice cream? She does not. Fermín leaves, but the camera stays patiently put. And so we wait with Cleo, in real time, while the credits roll, the happier couples file out, and the curtain closes. Her body starts to deflate like a dying balloon; in the dark solitude, things start to sink in. In Roma as in life, the realization comes to us gradually and quietly that Fermín was not going to the restroom. He has left Cleo marooned.
Cuarón holds that shot for several minutes, and in another movie that might feel excruciatingly long. In Roma, it’s just the way time passes. The very first shot of the film is not a feat of filmmaking so much as hypnosis: The opening credits languidly fade in and out over a close-up shot of a square of outdoor tile that, eventually, comes to be drenched in sudsy water. In its glare, if you squint, you can see the sky. Cuarón — who also wrote, directed, shot, coproduced, and coedited the film; phew! — is setting his tempo. No one’s in a rush here, and in Roma the viewer becomes as intimate with the three-step process of how Cleo cleans up dog shit (broom, powder, suds) as she does in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman with how potatoes are peeled. It’s a way of grounding the viewer, and orienting us within the rhythm of Cleo’s reality.
“The film starts looking at earth, in which heaven is nothing but a reflection in the water,” Cuarón said in a press conference after Roma’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September, where I first saw it. But from there, frame by frame, shot by breathtaking shot, Roma does not unfold so much as ascend. The last half hour, in particular, culminates in a sustained emotional climax so powerful that it affected me on a physical level. Roma turns you inside out and leaves your skin feeling raw and unusually porous. The first time I saw it I had goose bumps along my arms for so long after it was over that I feared they might be permanent.
“This is a film about memory,” Cuarón said at that press conference. “It’s black and white but it’s not a nostalgic black and white. It’s an approach of the past seen through the present. It’s a digital 65-millimeter black and white without grain. … We didn’t want it to feel like we’re immersing into the past. It’s the point of view from the present.”
Roma tells the story of Cleo (played with exquisite sensitivity by Yalitza Aparicio, in her first film role), a domestic worker in a well-to-do Mexican home inhabited by a doctor, his wife, and their four children. The family is, essentially, Cuarón’s, and Cleo is closely based on his own childhood housekeeper Liboria Rodriguez, with whom he spoke extensively while writing the film. Roma chronicles a year (1970–71) in which Cleo and the matriarch of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira, who plays her with a stiff upper lip that occasionally slips into an anarchic sneer), endure interweaving personal crises: Cleo becomes pregnant by a man who abandons her; Sofia struggles to hold her family together after her husband leaves. Though it is largely Cleo’s story, Roma’s brilliance lies in its devotion to plurality: In its rich, expansive view, life is always happening on multiple levels simultaneously. Cleo and Adela chat in a dialect their superiors likely don’t understand while, among the family, proper Spanish is spoken. Political discord outside only occasionally interrupts the safe banality of domestic life. And, perpetually, the operatic drama of childhood drowns out the muted everyday desperation of adult life. Toward the end of the film, after something unspeakable has befallen one of the older characters, the house reverberates with the anguished howls of their children — because their mother is applying an ointment to their sunburn and it really, really stings! Their cries are cathartic, even funny, but any laughter you might let out stings a little, too. Roma is constantly reminding us that only certain kinds of people are allowed to externalize their anguish and perform their suffering in public — namely the very young and the very rich. The rest must bear it quietly, invisibly, alone.
Especially the women. In Roma, men are almost comically absent — emotionally, physically, spiritually. Cuarón pokes gently emasculating fun at Fermín’s and the doctor’s obsessions with their respective phallic objects: Fermín loves nothing so much as stick fighting, and some of the funniest scenes revolve around the doctor’s chosen vehicle, a Mercury so ridiculously large he can barely park it in his driveway. Both men engage in extreme versions of what we’d call in modern parlance “ghosting,” though Cuarón is less interested in what they got up to than he is in the damage they’ve left in their wake. As in that movie theater, the men leave. The camera remains.
“We are alone,” Sofia tells Cleo one night, stumbling home drunk from godknowswhere. “No matter what they tell you, as women, we are always alone.” This is the closest the two women come to any kind of solidarity, though; Sofia’s sense of self seems to come more from her class than her gender, perhaps because it’s the identity that allows her to feel superior. You get the uncomfortable sense that Sofia believes part of Cleo’s job is to be a witness and sometimes even a scapegoat for her anger, especially when her husband is no longer there to bear its brunt.
If Cuarón wants this movie to be “the past seen through the present,” then we are certainly permitted to ask of it a very 2018 question: Is Cleo’s a story that Cuarón has the right to tell? It’s bound to come up, and for what it’s worth I do think the film welcomes this question. A recent piece in The Economist called Cuarón’s portrayal of Cleo “patronizing” and “entitled,” although its author failed to note that, while writing the film, Cuarón spoke with Rodriguez not only about their shared memories but also about the parts of her life he could not have possibly known as a child. And so we get such lived-in details as the nightly exercise routine Cleo and Adela do each night before bed (by candlelight, so as not to upset the family’s frugal grandmother by using electricity) and the movie dates Cleo goes on during her days off. But on a more subtle level, Cuarón lets the mural-like quality of his cinematography reinforce the multivalence of his script. His characters are not so much depicted in artificially cropped close-up, but instead exist among a wide, ongoing human tableau, constantly unfolding and often indifferent to their individual plights.
While a man drives away from his family, for example, a jubilant marching band impedes his route. A couple celebrates a wedding while, in the foreground of the shot, children glumly lick ice cream cones bought for them as they learned the news of their parents’ divorce. In one of the single most wrenching shots, after violence breaks out between protesting students and police, a woman holds her lover’s lifeless body in her hands as she cries out in agony: “Why?” We never learn; we will never see this woman again. At their most effective, Cuarón’s filmic frescoes create a widescreen sense of compassion. There is always a sense in Roma that this is a story, but it isn’t the only story. Look around you, he says. Take your pick.
Cuarón is a gifted and ambitious filmmaker, although at times in his career he has let his pursuit of technical innovation supersede the emotional pull of his movies. As acclaimed and successful as it was, that is what prevented Gravity from being a great film: The script could not quite match the spectacle. Up until Roma, the closest he’d come to balancing those two sides of his vision was 2006’s Children of Men, a dystopian thriller that — in the Trumpian age of climate panic and televised images of immigrant children in cages — has aged almost too well.
Cuarón has been carrying the germ of Roma with him for years, and he has said that he intended to make it 12 years ago, right after Children of Men. In retrospect, though, he admits he’s glad it didn’t happen that way. “Twelve years ago, I didn’t have the tools,” he’s said. “Not so much about the resources so much as the emotional tools to do this film.” Although he says the title’s echoes of Fellini are unintentional (Roma is the name of the neighborhood he lived in), the movie’s rich pageantry does recall some of the more impressive set pieces of 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita. More than any of the European masters, though, Cuarón reminds me of the late Louis Malle, a restless genre hopper who started out making relatively impersonal adaptations and later matured into unforgettable examinations of his most haunting childhood memories. Many artists (regardless of medium) get their most personal stories out of their system early in their careers, when they can channel the heat of youth but before they can bring to their projects the wisdom and proficiency of experience. Roma, in this sense, is a kindred spirit of Malle’s mid-to-late-career masterpieces, from Murmur of the Heart up to Au Revoir les Enfants. The critic Pauline Kael once observed of Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien that “it suggested an artist’s autobiographical first work, except that it showed a master’s command of the medium.” The same could be said of Roma. What a rare treat for Cuarón’s technical mastery and emotional sensitivity to be peaking at the same time — and for that time to be now.
Pepe moves through the film a little slower than the others, lagging behind his more aggressive brothers, telling Cleo about his ominous dreams, always seeming more interested in her inner life than the rest of his family. (Sometimes even peskily so; in one of the first scenes, he tries to eavesdrop when she’s on the phone with Fermín.) If he’s meant to be a self-portrait, he’s perhaps an overly generous one — at times he feels too wise and empathic toward Cleo, more like a tiny oracle than a boy.
But Cuarón is aware that our memories of ourselves as children are shaped irrevocably by the adults we become. So of course Pepe is a seer: His inwardness, curiosity, and imagination account for the movies he might someday grow up to make. To make a black-and-white movie in 2018 conveys a certain sense of nostalgia, yes, but don’t forget that Cuarón specified it as “digital 65-millimeter black and white without grain.” The film itself is a spirited dialogue between present and past, subject and object, tradition and innovation. The particularity of its release gives Roma an odd kind of duality, which you’d do better to see as generous than limiting; existing somewhere between arthouse cinema and the Netflix Original, perhaps its acclaim across both these camps can serve as a bridge between the two. What Cuarón has offered with Roma is the potential for an experience of mass intimacy. That means it should be seen by as many people as possible.