There’s a fine line between a movie that’s “artsy” and one that’s “artistic,” at least in my mind. Artsy films I associate with a palpable (and largely unearned) sense of importance, originality and depth. They may be unnecessarily abstract, employ an unsteady cam ~for realism~ and cannot end until at least one character has floated their hand out of a car window while contemplating life (Wildlife and We the Animals, despite being great movies, gave in hard to this cliché).
Then there’s Roma, the latest and greatest masterpiece from Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winning director of Gravity. Roma is now screening at FilmScene for a limited time.
The best word to describe Roma is “art,” and sure enough, I wasn’t distracted by a single hammy, Oscar-baiting, “art-house” trope. This is despite the film being in black and white, a choice I was ready to call a gimmick, but couldn’t help but endorse after just the first shot: a tile floor, splashed with soapy water, reflecting a stark-white sky through which a jet flies. It’s intriguing, strangely beautiful and likely wouldn’t have translated in color.
The lack of color also subverts expectations for a film set in Mexico. From Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (my favorite work of his, until today) to Coco to the infamously oversaturated south-of-the-border scenes in Breaking Bad, audiences are used to seeing a warm, vibrant Mexican landscape. Roma’s Mexico in the early 1970s is a bit cold, urban and antiquated, but still energetic and nostalgic.
The film is, in fact, an exercise in nostalgia for Cuarón, who based it on his own upbringing as part of a middle-class family in Mexico City. The film centers on the family’s domestic worker, Cleo (modeled after Cuarón’s own beloved housekeeper and nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez), who undergoes a personal transformation while the family for whom she works starts to crumble, and social unrest — including the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971 — shakes the country around them.
It’s tempting to dissect every shot, every slow lateral pan of the camera, every gorgeous emotion on the face of rookie actor Yalitza Aparicio, and gush about the ’70s film and music references, but I’ve probably already said too much. Everyone should discover Roma for themselves, as clear-eyed as I was. If you’ve read anything about this film, you already know it’s a must-see. The bigger question: How should you see it?
For the next week, at least, you have two options: You can catch a screening at FilmScene, or you can fire up Netflix on the device of your choosing; the streaming company bought distribution rights to Roma, and theatrical releases are extremely limited. The perk of Netflix viewing is the accessibility — the average person is lucky to have seen one Best Picture nominee in any given year, but there are nearly 60 million Netflix accounts in the U.S., and at least as many account moochers. As it did with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (have we talked about that Iowa City reference?!) last month, Netflix has made a new, cinematic great as easy and free to watch as reruns of The Office.
But, of course, I must recommend seeing Roma in theaters. It’s beautiful to behold on the big screen, and easier to read subtitles when the letters are as tall as your fingers. But the biggest perk to the theater, unless you have a killer home stereo system, may be the surround sound. Roma doesn’t have a score, but a wonderful mix of diegetic sounds — waves crashing on the shore, street vendors and protesters shouting all around, the pow of a man being shot from a cannon (!) and much more — literally brought me chills and goosebumps. If you do decide to watch from home, sit close to a screen, remove all distractions and wear headphones. Hell, just see it!
Cuarón’s perspective, the way he quietly, lovingly observes his hometown, is contagious. Emerging from FilmScene, my ears were attuned to the scrunch of slush and sand under people’s feet as they walked the Ped Mall bricks; the huffy breathing of a dog, and the jingle of its collar; an older man plopping wearily on a bench as his wife tells him she just wants to duck into Ten Thousand Villages real quick. I love the way Cuarón looks at the world — and outer space, for that matter, though I believe he’s at his best on solid ground — and grateful for the opportunity to enjoy this work of art on the medium of my choosing.
Check the FilmScene calendar to catch Roma, screening only from Dec. 14 to 20.