Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Nancy García García, Fernando Grediaga, Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Verónica García
Country: Mexico, USA
Running Time: 135 min
Over the last couple of years, Netflix, on top of helping alter the way most people watch films, have proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with as a production company. The furore over whether or not their output should be classed as ‘cinema’ has died down a bit as former critics of Netflix have realised the company backs some stunning work that many of the traditional Hollywood studios wouldn’t take a risk on. This year’s Oscars, for instance, was littered with Netflix titles. Yes, they had to be screened on a certain number of cinemas to be considered, but it’s clear the Academy, other awards bodies and critics have accepted them into their cliques.
Whilst I didn’t agree with the old argument about leaving them out of the Oscars because they’re ‘TV movies’, I haven’t always been a massive supporter of Netflix as a viewing platform. The ease of use is fantastic and they have some excellent content. However, I’m old fashioned and worry about them destroying the physical media collector culture I’m part of. I love collating my own carefully selected wall (or house) full of films and I’m a huge fan of the extra material you often get on discs but rarely with streamed films. Plus, classic films are not as well represented on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Also, the compression involved in making a film small enough to stream online reduces the quality in comparison to Blu-ray and UHD. Streamed films may look amazing on a tablet, but blow them up on a projector and the difference is there.
Thankfully, it seems there is still a collector’s market for physical media though, with boutique labels continuing to release handsomely restored classic and cult films, whilst Netflix and their ilk keep the modern releases readily available whilst producing their own top-notch content.
In a surprising spin though, that fuses the best of both worlds, came the news that Netflix were opening their doors to allow Criterion to release one of their titles. I was especially delighted because the first Netflix title being released by the label was one I adore, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
Based on Cuarón’s own personal memories of his childhood in Mexico City during the early 70s, Roma tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is a maid for a middle-class family. Fairly early on in the film, the father and mother of the family separate, with the mother, Sofía (Marina de Tavira), staying in the family home with her 4 children. In amongst this family turmoil, Cleo, who looks after the kids as much, if not more than their mother, starts a relationship with a young man, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and falls pregnant. Fermín disappears as soon as he finds out, so Cleo is also left alone.
The two women then try to cope and come to terms with their abandonment, whilst the city around them is in turmoil (it’s set during the Mexican ‘Dirty War’ and features a recreation of the Corpus Christi massacre).
Over his last couple of films (Gravity and Children of Men), Cuarón has proven himself to be a master at using cutting edge technology, not just for the sake of it, but to truly enhance his films. Roma, despite being a very personal and largely intimate family drama, is no different. Although in black and white, it’s shot on a high-end digital camera with no grain and in a very wide format, to create a pin-sharp, incredibly detailed picture with space in frame to allow for a strong sense of place and space. There’s no nostalgic filter to make it look like old film. Cuarón claims black and white was used because that’s how he sees the memories of his childhood but wanted to end the nostalgia there. Instead, he creates a painstakingly accurate rendition of his family home and Mexico City at the time. The lengths he went to, to get every minute detail correct verge on the ridiculous when you see the special features on the disc. It pays off though, as the world created on screen feels totally real and immersive, due to the wide frame and long takes frequently used.
A very wide dynamic range was achieved to allow for all the details to be visible too and to give it a more natural look. The crew shot extra exposure plates to be able to get a range of exposures on every shot, then the grading team could use that information to bring out darker elements and tone down washed out ones. There’s a large depth of field too, keeping everything in focus. For this, they had to use a lot of light on set. Long takes and panning motions around a real location meant lights had to be digitally removed from shots in post too. These are just some of the many special effects that went into the film that you never notice.
Equally as subtly elaborate is the film’s sound design. There’s no non-diegetic music, so on the surface it seems like a simple soundtrack, but once again Cuarón pushed his crew to take things to another level and create an incredibly rich and intricately layered symphony of natural sound. It was created for Dolby Atmos, which allows for hundreds of points of sound in a space, rather than a straight forward 2, 6 or 8. With a frequently roaming camera and Cuarón’s insistence on the spatial positioning of sounds to follow, the design of the film’s audio must have been incredibly complicated, but it sounds truly beautiful. Much like the visuals, it aids the natural and immersive nature of the film by presenting the world in crisp and clear detail. Cuarón even insisted on swapping the usual indecipherable ‘walla’ of background extras for specially recorded dialogue, to give every character life, even those merely passing through.
The film is not purely driven by its style or clever techniques though. Though the plot is sparse and pace leisurely, there is a great emotional resonance to the film, particularly in a handful of immensely powerful key scenes, and it has much to say about the class and ethnic divide in Mexico at the time. It does this chiefly by capturing both sides of the maid/family dynamic. Based on Cuarón’s own nanny/maid as a child, Cleo is very close to the children and in many ways is considered a part of the family, but there’s also a subtle disconnect there and a clear inequality. This is highlighted at the very end of the film when, despite all Cleo has been through with Sofía and the children, she ends up back where she started, performing menial household tasks for them whilst they continue their comfortable middle-class lives.
To highlight the ethnic divide, Cuarón made sure to have an indigenous actress in the role of Cleo, letting her use her native Mixtec language in scenes with her friends, as well as Spanish. Aparicio is not a professional actress and comes from a similar background to Cleo, so could draw on real experiences for her character. In fact, the vast majority of the cast are ‘non-actors’, to avoid stage-like readings. Cuarón even went as far as to use actual doctors and nurses in a key hospital scene, to ensure accuracy. He didn’t write a full script either, only a loose plan surrounding a handful of key moments. Rehearsals were limited too, to keep performances fresh and spontaneous.
The long takes utilised also allowed the process to be more organic, preventing the cast from getting stuck in keeping with continuity on different shots. It gave Cuarón the chance to change and develop a scene in different takes until he had the one he was happiest with or had a few different options to choose from at a later stage. The film was shot in chronological order to allow for any choices made during the process to carry through.
Also aiding the naturalism and helping create a beautifully humane film is a rich vein of humour running through it. It’s hardly a comedy, but there are lots of fun touches. In particular, Fermín’s over-enthusiasm for martial arts and his sometime tutor Professor Zotec provide a few laughs, though when you make the connection between this training and the Dirty War massacres, it takes a much darker turn.
I could go on and on about Roma’s many qualities, but I’m waffling as it is. In my eyes, it’s absolute perfection and possibly the best film to have been made in the last decade. It manages to strike a wonderful balance between intimate restraint and bold cinematic technique. With astonishingly beautiful cinematography and sound design, carefully controlled yet deeply humane direction and a poignant message to the women and ‘help’ of Mexico, it’s a bona fide masterpiece from top to bottom.
Roma is out on 24th February on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks and sounds absolutely stunning on Blu-ray. It’s pin-sharp and the wide dynamic range of the picture is perfectly handled. I don’t have Dolby Atmos to take full advantage of the audio track, but it sounded incredible on my 5.1 system.
There are a few special features included in the package too:
– 4K digital master, supervised by director Alfonso Cuarón, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Road to “Roma,” a new documentary about the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with Cuarón.
– 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.
– 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.
– New documentary about the film’s ambitious theatrical campaign and social impact in Mexico, featuring Celis and Rodríguez.
– Alternate French subtitles and Spanish SDH
– PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by novelist Valeria Luiselli, historian Enrique Krauze, and (with the Blu-ray) writing by author Aurelio Asiain, along with production-design images with notes by Caballero.
The documentaries are all excellent, focussing in great detail on how the film was conceived and produced. They all help appreciate the incredible amount of work that went into the film and Cuarón’s obsessive desire for perfection in all details.
The ‘Road to Roma’ documentary is the real show-piece of the set, running at feature length. It’s purely narrated by Cuarón, so you don’t get any other perspectives, but it’s such a personal film to him and he put so much of himself into it, it works. Plus there’s a huge amount of behind the scenes material to let you see everyone else at work. On top of explaining how the film was made, Cuarón discusses some of the personal, historical and political aspects of the film.
The other documentaries feature a wider range of contributors, to cover all the bases. The two pieces on the look and sound of the film are particularly good. They get very technical and detailed without becoming overly complicated.
The ‘Snapshots from the Set’ documentary is another coverall piece but doesn’t feature Curon, instead interviewing a whole host of other people involved in making the film, so it makes a good counter to the longer ‘Road to Roma’ film.
The documentary about the theatrical campaign is eye-opening too, showing the extents to which the team went to get the film shown all over Mexico.
Most of the pieces are rather ‘back-slappy’ (i.e. praising what a good job they did and how hard they worked). I loved the film, so don’t mind this too much and the production was special in many ways, but it would have been nice to have one or two extras coming from third parties instead, allowing for analysis rather than just proud recollections of how well people did their jobs.
It’s a minor complaint about a package loaded with fascinating and in-depth special features though. With these supplementing a superb film, it’s an absolute must-buy and a step in the right direction for the streaming/physical media divide.