Cinematic beauty: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is worth the hunt for a big-screen showing

Yalitza Aparicio and Marco Graf in Roma. (Carlos Somonte | Netflix)

Is the movie industry in its twilight years? Once unthinkable, that’s a premise that demands examination more and more these days, as alternative platforms such as online streaming services draw off more and more of the former moviegoing public. We’ve been here before, at the dawn of television, but home theaters nowadays have become much more alluring and comfortable – not to mention high-tech. Shocking as it may sound to those of us who still cherish the social experience of watching a picture show in a big, gloriously appointed cinema, there’s a growing demographic, trending young, for whom the line between watching TV and going to the movies has grown vanishingly slender. 

Steven Spielberg isn’t the only graying cinephile to express alarm over this trend to turn moviegoing from a special night out into a form of cocooning. In calling for movies distributed primarily by streaming services to be disqualified from consideration for Academy Awards, however, he may be going about it the wrong way. The business model of the big cinema chains, whose contracts often require a minimum 90-day window between theatrical release and online availability, may be the variable that needs to change. Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 opus Roma should’ve been more widely seen in moviehouses, but the moviehouses didn’t want to play ball with Netflix, the film’s US distributor.

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If you do Netflix, where it has been available since November, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen Roma. If movie theaters are more your speed, catching a screening of it has been much more of a challenge. I caught it at the Moviehouse in Millerton last week, and the Rosendale Theatre will be showing it from March 15 to 21. Doubtless the interest stirred up by wins in three Oscar categories (Best Foreign Film, Director and Cinematography) will result in other mid-Hudson appearances over the next month, but they’ll be sporadic. Keep your eyes peeled.

Is Roma worth the effort to find? Absolutely yes. Its huge pile of cinematography prizes is well-warranted; shot in digital 65mm format, its black-and-white tones are subtle, silken. It tells much of its story in long, unbroken tracking shots, with the camera often slowly rotating 360 degrees to take in all the sprawling details of a space. This is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen available.

As visually mesmerizing as it is, in terms of narrative pacing, Roma is not for everyone. Long attention spans are required to follow a story that is only very sporadically eventful. Cuarón’s highly personal screenplay about a middle-class family much like his own, leading a sheltered existence in a gated compound in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood in 1970-71, draws the viewer in very gradually. The protagonist is a Oaxacan housemaid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the scope of whose existence is defined almost totally by the minor daily dramas of the family who employ her – until she becomes pregnant by a young martial arts expert, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who flees from the news that he is soon to become a father.

Cleo isn’t the only character with a problem with avoidant males. Sofía (Marina de Tavira), the mother of the household, spends most of the movie pretending to her three sons and one daughter that their father Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a doctor, is in Canada doing medical research when he has in fact left her for another woman. Cleo is the rock who holds them all together through their time of marital stress, asking little for herself but finding bonds of mutual affection with the four children.

In many ways a microcosm of class privilege, this family seems to move in a dream through a time of social and political unrest, curiously detached from swirling rumors of government land seizures and violent clashes between student protesters and right-wing militias. The boys play with guns, as do older relatives during a New Year’s visit to their hacienda in the country, with little awareness of the real-world implications of their actions. Cuarón lifts us out of the grim subtext of his story at intervals with flashes of magical realism: a young boy’s matter-of-fact recollections of what he did in a past life, the ill-omened wreck of a glass raised to toast the health of an expected baby, Cleo’s spontaneous ability to hold a difficult yoga pose with perfect balance.

Roma is a beautiful work of visual and sonic art, but on many levels, an oddly opaque piece of storytelling. Your level of emotional engagement may vary depending on how comfortable you feel with the trope of an indigenous woman as stoic, hardworking and undemanding, never taking the indignities of domestic work personally. Though we see this story through Cleo’s eyes – and imbibe heaping helpings of the director’s gratitude for her model, the Mixtec woman who mostly raised him – we don’t get that far inside her head. Her heart is showing for sure, and for many, that will be more than enough.

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