roma review

The Conundrum of Roma

Take Roma. Here’s a film that, until a few weeks ago, was arriving on Netflix on December 14, with merely the hint or suggestion that a theatrical release was in the cards. Now, they’re releasing Roma on November 23 in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to come in early December, and then on Netflix on December 14. As mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to see Roma in theaters, and I do mean fortunate. Whatever else is true, let’s be clear: if you have the chance to see Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film in a theater, you need to take that chance. This is a remarkable visual and aural experience, if you’re watching on a big screen with a great sound system.

I wish I could tell you that the characters and story of Roma were as remarkable as watching and hearing it, but alas. (Having seen the scores for this film on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, I can see that I’m in a very tiny minority. Such is life.) Set in 1970 and 1971 in Mexico City, the autobiographically inspired Roma depicts a slice of life for Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a middle-class family. Cleo’s own struggle occurs after she finds out she’s pregnant from her martial-arts-obsessed boyfriend Fermin, who promptly abandons her; this happens against the backdrop of the family she works for dealing with their own troubles — father Antonio is a local doctor who leaves his wife Sofia and their four kids to gallivant with his mistress instead.

There’s very little of import happening in Roma, but what I found most telling is based on what I read in the production notes. In the production notes, Cuarón talks about how he and his casting director looked for people who looked as close to his actual family members as possible, and went to the trouble of essentially recreating the house in which he lived as a boy. With Cuarón also serving as director of photography, and scene after scene with deliberate, slow-panning shots or static takes, there’s a distinct sense of place within the house and the other places in Mexico the family and Cleo visit. This is an incredible undertaking of reconstructing a place that exists as much in the past as it does in Cuarón’s memories.

But I struggled to engage with what was on screen. The performances — many of the actors, including Aparicio, are first-timers — are all quite good. Unlike some other films featuring relative newcomers, there’s not a sense of awkwardness among the actors, especially Aparicio. And make no mistake, the way that Cuarón builds out a sensory experience, making full use of a theater’s surround sound system, is remarkable. Often, the background sound is almost jarring, as you feel fully transported into this time and place in the past. But all the technical achievements can’t hide the sense that the aggressively average story being told to service those achievements isn’t able to measure up.

So in some ways, Roma is the greatest conundrum of all for Netflix. Though I appreciated it and admired it more than Outlaw King, and it’s the exact opposite of the anonymous content Netflix has produced in the past, it’s not as impressive as I might have hoped. But: you should see it in a theater. If you can. You may not be able to, of course; its technical prowess aside, this is more of an art piece than Cuarón’s other films of recent years, and Netflix is treating it as such in its distribution pattern. (Earlier this week, it was revealed that the film is bypassing the Alamo Drafthouse chain entirely.) This is the great irony: Roma was clearly intended for theatrical presentation, but most people who see it will only do so on a TV or a laptop or a mobile device. What will Roma look like on your TV? Maybe if you have a 4K HDR TV with a kickass surround sound system, you might get a solid experience. But if you don’t, what will you experience?

The difference of these experience can best be exemplified by something I noticed this past weekend. By now, as mentioned above, Outlaw King is on Netflix, available for you to stream. When watching that film, Buster Scruggs and Roma on the big screen, I took note of the fact that they all opened with a new Netflix logo. Not the white-background, red-text version. No, there’s an entirely different (but not entirely remarkable) logo that culminates in a red-letter “N”. Not “Netflix”. I wondered: was that the same logo you can see when you stream the film on Netflix? Upon clicking play on Outlaw King, I learned that the answer is “no”. Your experience is different from the moment you select the movie — you get the regular Netflix logo, not the theatrical one. Why create a new logo? Why not just use the same one? Or why not have the new logo in front of these films?

Maybe the best question is this: why does Netflix want to work with marquee filmmakers if it also wants to keep those filmmakers boxed in by your iPhone or MacBook? And why would those filmmakers want to work with Netflix? Next year, the studio is going even bigger with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a mob movie with an A-list cast to beat all other A-list casts. And it’s from Martin Scorsese. Hard to imagine that you wouldn’t want to see that movie on the biggest screen possible. Maybe by next November, Netflix will have figured things out more. Right now, they’re only able to work with independent theater chains willing to accept screening a movie only a few weeks before it’s on everyone’s personal devices. But Netflix needs to figure things out, and fast. They say they want to disrupt the theatrical experience, but for now, it’s obvious that the theatrical experience is disrupting Netflix.

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