There’s an argument, typified by Michael Bay’s recent piece of Netflix bilge 6 Underground (2019), that in the age of VOD you have to grab audiences from the opening minute… because, if you don’t, they’ll stop streaming and start something else. This could mean an opening done in media res, it could mean packing 60 cuts into the first 60 seconds, or it could simply mean dramatic music. Roma, which until The Irishman (2019) was Netflix’s most prestigious film production, opens with a shot of black-and-white paving stones with no music and Spanish language titles. It holds that shot for longer than a minute. We’re enveloped by the echoing sounds of a neighbourhood in the early morning quiet and, as soapy water washes over the slabs, we see reflected in its surface the distant shape of a passenger jet skating overhead.
A dramatic opening it isn’t… but it’s an engrossing one. From here we are introduced to the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in domestic servant to an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City circa 1970. Cleo cleans the house, helps prepare and serve food, does the laundry, and helps to care for the family’s four young children. But her menial life gets thrown into disarray by two absentee fathers: one the patriarch of the family; another the source of Cleo’s unexpected pregnancy. Cuarón’s script is an everyday feminist tale of two women left to fill that void and hold everything together. There’s nothing showy about it, but the story will break your heart and cradle the pieces together as best as possible.
There are several things that can’t go unmentioned when discussing Roma—the first of which is the startling performances by Aparicio as Cleo, and Marina de Tavira as the matriarch Sofía. Aparicio gives Cleo wide-eyed innocence but also quiet grace. She’s an observer; inside the walls, but in the background, even of her own life. Cleo’s also honest, kind, and loving. Sofía is loving, too, but radiates desperate energy. She knows the family unit is crumbling, cut adrift from the stability of their patriarch and his income. Both give entirely convincing performances.
The second thing to mention is the sound design. The film’s sound was produced in Dolby Atmos and is rich with texture even when played through more economical speakers. The sound of a marching band approaching, the constant jets overhead, the children scampering and bickering…. the film has no score and, as a result, maximum attention was paid to the sound design and how it punctuates scenes. It is unlikely Roma will be the first film people will test out when buying a Dolby Atmos system, but it should be.
The third thing that cannot go unmentioned is the film’s monumental cinematography. Lensed by Cuarón himself after Emmanuel Lubezki was forced to leave the project, it is the film’s big creative decision. Filmed in black-and-white on Arri Alexa 65 digital cameras, the images captured aren’t post-processed with artificial grain and halation to imitate celluloid, but utilised high-tech methods such as reshooting locations at multiple exposure levels and combining them in postproduction to allow for wide frames with effectively 100% depth of field and lush detail in both shadows and highlights. It’s a new form of black-and-white cinematography (the complexities of which will likely go unnoticed by most) and a typifying example of Roma’s understated virtuosity.
A similarly understated brilliance has been performed in the cutting room, where editors Adam Gough and Cuarón (himself, again) keep the locked-off shots running for extended amounts of time, but without the fluid movement and “how did they do that?” moments normally associated with long shots. Instead, the long shots are used to remove artifice and increase naturalism, never breaking our concentration or our connection with the characters. Every creative decision, even the black-and-white, has been made to reduce the mental distance between us and the world we are watching.
When Roma just missed out on ‘Best Picture’ at the 91st Academy Awards, there was much discussion about the validity of streaming services and their connection to cinema, a debate that has only intensified this year (albeit in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way) after Martin Scorsese’s unfortunate comments. That’s why it’s great that Criterion chose to honour Roma with entry into their esteemed Collection barely a year since it’s release.
For the vast majority of a film’s lifetime, it exists as a home entertainment product, to the point that the venue of its initial release is immaterial. Divorced from the debate that surrounded it, Roma is undoubtedly a work of cinematic brilliance. But also, more than that, it’s an essential piece of cinema and perhaps the most recent example of invisible technological advancements truly in the service of the narrative. In the years to come, Roma will change the way films are made, not just the way they are exhibited.
Blu-ray Special Features:
- 4K digital master, supervised by director Alfonso Cuarón, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Obviously, there has been less work for Criterion to do on this release than their normal cleaning up of old negatives and soundtracks but, believe it or not, this is still the superior way to watch the film (rather than streaming 4K on Netflix) due to the compression artefacts that are part and parcel of streaming video at home.
- ‘Road to Roma’, a new documentary about the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with Cuarón. Cuarón is a brilliant articulator of his craft, and this 70-minute documentary is essential for any admirer of this film. Cuarón eloquently explains not only the production process but his creative process too. What is most revealed by this documentary is how much craft and artifice were needed to produce a work of such startling naturalism, and belies the assumption that anything that looks this simple is simple to make.
- ‘Snapshots from the Set’, a new documentary featuring actors Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, producers Gabriela Rodríguez and Nicolás Celis, production designer Eugenio Caballero, casting director Luis Rosales, executive producer David Linde, and others. Whereas the feature documentary is focussed exclusively on Cuarón, this shorter documentary gives voice to the rest of the crew and the cast. Some of the most interesting stuff focuses on Aparicio and her family, but the crew are also excellent at articulating the complex crafts they perform.
- New documentaries about the film’s sound and postproduction processes, featuring Cuarón; Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay, and Craig Henighan from the postproduction sound team; editor Adam Gough; postproduction supervisor Carlos Morales; and finishing artist Steven J. Scott. These documentaries are perhaps more conventional, but due to the unconventional audio and visuals of the film, they are elevated to something far more interesting and are just as essential as the rest of the documentaries on this release.
- New documentary about the film’s ambitious theatrical campaign and social impact in Mexico, featuring Celis and Rodríguez. Lastly, a documentary on the theatrical release of the film in Mexico. This should be boring, but due to the producers’ determination to bring the film to parts of Mexico without cinemas or Netflix, it is also essential, rounding out what should be thought of as one two-and-a-half-hour long documentary on the preproduction, production, postproduction, and distribution of Roma.
- ‘Nothing at Stake’, a new video essay by filmmaker kogonada.
- Alternate French subtitles and Spanish SDH for the film.
- PLUS: Essays by novelist Valeria Luiselli and historian Enrique Krauze, along with (Blu-ray only) writing by author Aurelio Asiain Córdova and production-design images with notes by Caballero.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Alfonso Cuarón.
starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey & Carlos Peralta.