Alfonso Cuarón’s luminous memory play “Roma” may be the purest example of what the snobs call “cinema” — applying a filmmaker’s skills to show life as it is, in black and white, with no musical score or other artificial tricks.
But because of how the production was financed — and how that has determined where viewers are likely to see it, in a theater or on a TV screen — a debate is raging among those same snobs about whether “Roma” should count as a movie at all.
When one watches “Roma,” whether on a big screen or a small one, there is no debate: It should count not only as a movie, but as one of the year’s best.
Cuarón is the director, screenwriter, cinematographer and (with Adam Gough) editor on this highly personal story, based on his childhood growing up in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood in the 1970s. The story is told from the vantage point of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the family’s dutiful and shy housekeeper.
In the movie’s opening shot, Cuarón shows us water lapping across a tile floor, reflecting the skylight above and an airliner flying overhead. As the camera pulls back, we see that the water is from Cleo’s mop bucket, as she cleans up the dog poop left in the driveway. In a single shot, Cuarón beautifully captures the distance between Cleo’s unspoken dreams and her reality.
Cleo spends her day cleaning the house for Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her four children: teen son Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey), younger sons Paco (Carlos Peralta) and Pepe (Marco Graf), and the daughter, Sofi (Daniela Demesa). In the evening, the patriarch, Señor Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), comes home, his fancy car barely fitting in the driveway without scraping the walls.
When Señor Antonio tells the family he’s going on a business trip to Quebec, Señora Sofia is unusually emotional about his departure. Cuarón drops the clues of marital discord gradually, as if this is how he as a child might have experienced them.
Cleo has her own problems, though. A short romance with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young man obsessed with martial arts, leads to a pregnancy. Fermin soon disappears, and Cleo must rely on the help of Señora Sofia, herself suffering from the heartbreak inflicted by an unfaithful man.
Cuarón captures tiny moments in exceptional detail, finding the humor and tears in the everyday. Sometimes outside events dovetail with personal milestones. The most harrowing is when Cleo and Señora Sofia are shopping for a crib when a street riot breaks out nearby, and the ensuing violence and panic put Cleo in premature labor.
Cuarón, the director of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Gravity,” got the funding for this deeply personal story by making a deal with the streaming service Netflix. The movie has screened in some theaters and will open for a limited run this Friday at Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Cinemas — the same day it debuts on Netflix.
The Netflix link brought controversy when “Roma” premiered in late August at the Venice Film Festival — where it won the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. Some theater operators complained that Venice was giving a forum to a movie that would bypass their screens for the small screens at home. (A similar debate kept “Roma” from premiering at Cannes in May, when Netflix pulled all its titles over the French festival’s blanket ban on nontheatrical films.)
Certainly “Roma” would best be experienced in a theater, where Cuarón’s carefully shot images and precise sound design will land on the viewer with minimum distractions. But the truth is that many people don’t have easy access to a downtown art-house movie theater, but they do have Netflix hooked into their TVs. It’s not fair for the movie snobs to shame them.
If you have the chance to see “Roma” in a theater, the effort is worth it. If the choice is between seeing “Roma” on Netflix and not seeing it at all, watch it at home and let your TV become a window into Cleo’s life.
Alfonso Cuarón’s memory tale — looking at the life of his family’s housekeeper in 1970s Mexico City — is a beautiful document of life’s struggles, enjoyable on a big screen or a small one.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas; also debuts on Netflix.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 14.
Rated • R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images and language.
Running time • 135 minutes; in Spanish with subtitles.