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The best film I saw last year was Alfonzo Cuaron's Roma. In this, I was hardly alone. It won the best of the year honor from numerous critics' groups, including those in N.Y., L.A., Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Georgia, SEFCA, and Philadelphia (one in which I voted), along with the African-American Film Critics Association, the Indiewire Critics poll, and the prestigious National Society of Film Critics, among many, many others. It won the Golden Lion award for best film at Venice (where it premiered) and currently has a whopping 96 percent approval rating on the venerated Tomatometer culled from 317 critics (only 13 of which dismissed it as "rotten").

Don't worry, the audience aggregate score on that same RT metric sits comfortably at 83 percent, not as overwhelmingly strong as the critics' count, obviously, but certainly well past respectable. Guillermo del Toro, last year's Oscar winner for best director and film (The Shape of Water), long a friend to fellow Mexican countryman Cuaron, has referred to it as a certifiable "masterpiece" to his many Twitter followers, and recently devoted a long and fascinating thread where he broke down some of the visual and thematic elements to further bolster his case. It currently sits as an odds-on favorite win the best picture Oscar (keeping in mind Oscar odds are notoriously mercurial) anywhere from 4-1 to 10-11..

All of which to say, it's been hailed over and over again, and (in my opinion) deservedly so. Not that it doesn't have its detractors, as with one of my colleagues, who maintains (to paraphrase) it's the "most elegant and beautiful ode to dog crap" he's ever seen, but by and large, in a supremely divided age, Cuaron's gorgeous, exquisite film is as close to a critical and public consensus as can possibly be expected.

It is a vast and absorbing picture, shot in gorgeous black and white (though, as Cuaron has pointed out, not shot with 35 mm black-and-white film, but digitally -- less a nostalgia trip than an intended effect of age and distance), with a frame filled to every corner with luxurious detail and significance. In fact, there is so much happening at once, there are scenes designed to be challengingly distracting to the viewer. One such scene, involving a highly momentous moment between our heroine, Cleo (the wonderful Yalitza Aparicio), and her cad of a boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), as they sit in the back of the movie theater, forces you to choose between watching the (subtitled) ending of the French comedy La Grande Vadrouille, and paying attention to the (also subtitled, for non-Spanish speakers) dialogue between the couple, as Cleo announces her pregnancy, and Fermin excuses himself to the restroom, never to return. She leaves the theater, somewhat bewildered at being abandoned, to a frenzy of street market vendors, all displaying their loud, flashy wares around her: a study in emotional contrasts.

It's not a film of historic sweep, exactly, though it certainly utilizes the political unrest of the early '70s as a backdrop, culminating in a terrible massacre of protesting students by CIA-trained government soldiers, but Cuaron isn't trying to make a David Lean-style historical epic; instead, he finds a much smaller milieu with which to explore the territory of his childhood (though not necessarily autobiographical, as the story revolves around Cleo). Cuaron has said the film is largely based on his memories growing up in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, but it's not about him, per se. The result is beautifully reverberating, without the usual gestures of confession or aggrandizement one associates with strict autobiography.

Roma was bought and distributed by Netflix, a more recent entrant in the major studio sweepstakes, who, along with Amazon has spent the past couple of years buying prestige festival films at a breakneck pace. With the advent of streaming technology, coupled with the relative inexpensiveness of large flat-screens, we have officially reached a tipping point where the odds-on favorite to win best picture has been seen by the vast majority of people in their own living room. Convenient as that no doubt is, it deprives an audience the chance to see the film the way Cuaron (and, one could argue, nature) intended.

Acting as his own cinematographer, the director has created a breathtaking film of incredible visual grace and power. The trouble is, the vast majority of viewers are seeing it within the confines of their home TVs. If viewed even on a larger model, say 75-inch, a film such as Roma absolutely begs to be seen on the largest screen possible. I once had the privilege to watch Lean's Lawrence of Arabia at the enormous (and now sadly shuttered) Ziegfeld in New York, and that experience was like watching a completely different film from what I had witnessed from any middling home video.

Beyond the technical scope, there is still another sense of loss here. Consider the sense of community that Cuaron infuses in Roma, the many, many scenes of bustling markets, family gatherings, and collective group experiences (even the protests out in the street). In one early scene, the as-yet unbroken family lounge around happily, watching a comedy show on their TV. Cleo, ever present, is still on the job (she is asked to clear dishes and bring the patriarch a cup of tea), but she's still a part of things, embroiled in the family dynamic on the couch.

This was one of the original draws of screened films, as with theater, for several millennium: the gathering of people to appreciate a collective experience. The difference between watching a comedy by yourself, or with a riotous crowd that exhorts every joke, is like biting into a raw potato vs. diving into a plate of cheese fries.

Cuaron's film is designed to feel a bit like a throwback to an earlier era; obviously a different time and place, but beyond that, a period where such collective experiences were the norm and not an aberration. He fills his frame with outsize elements -- in one scene, as Cleo arrives in the village Fermin resides, there is a human cannonball in the background, shooting himself across an expanse of field into a net to an adoring throng, a clear homage to Fellini's fascination with circus and carnival performers -- and packs it with people, and bustle, and characters hurtling back and forth so as to suggest a tremendous amount of life and energy flowing around every moment.

And the thought of Roma, with that particular sensibility, being viewed by someone on a couch somewhere in their living room, alone save for their partner, or roommate, or pet, feels unduly bleak, like an inmate watching a sweeping documentary about the Himalayas from behind bars. I can't blame anyone for not seeking out the film on the big screen -- it played a very limited engagement in theaters, and for people who subscribe to Netflix, it was, as they say right there, waiting only for the press of a button -- but I can't help but feel the loss of the original intent and attraction of cinema in the first place.

Cuaron's film was made as if from an earlier era, where films were events to be shared by hundreds of people in the same place and time, it's more than a little perplexingly ironic that he chose to partner with a distributor who would guarantee such would not be the case with his own audience.

MovieStyle on 02/01/2019

Print Headline: Roma cries out for the big screen


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