There’s a shot in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma – which plays this week at the Toronto International Film Festival – less than midway through the movie, of the characters watching John Sturges’ 1969 film Marooned, a story about three astronauts stranded in orbit around Earth. As a viewer, it’s a startling reminder of Cuarón’s abilities (it’s impossible to watch this scene and not think, “oh yeah, Gravity!,” which somehow came out five years ago already), that he can make such an eye-popping spectacle about a woman stranded in space and also make such a grounded, emotionally engaging film about a woman living in circa-1970 Mexico City.
The heart of Roma (titled after the Mexico City neighborhood) is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young woman who works as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class Mexico City family in 1970. This isn’t the easiest film to write about because this is a movie less about plot and one that more immerses you in this world. On the surface, it’s easy to say that Gravity and Roma don’t have anything in common, but the truth is they have almost everything in common. And that’s Cuarón ability to immerse the viewer in his story, whether that story is set in orbit around Earth or on the streets of Mexico City. When you watch an Alfonso Cuarón movie, you’re pretty much living an Alfonso Cuarón movie. While watching Roma, is was every bit as engrossed as I was watching people being whipped around in space by giant, spinning satellites.
Cleo works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a mother of four whose husband, we watch, leaves on a business trip and just never comes back. We see him again, at his job at the hospital and on the streets of the neighborhood with other women, but never back at the house. And over the course of the film we watch as Sophia slowly comes to the realization that her husband isn’t coming back and now the kids are her responsibility.
But Cleo has her own personal tragedies. Cleo discovers she’s pregnant. She tells the future father this news while on a date at the local movie house. With no remorse, the young man excuses himself to use the bathroom and just never returns. There’s a lot about men skirting responsibilities in Roma, leaving the women in their lives behind to actually deal with the repercussions. Now it’s Cleo and Sophia on their own with the kids and a kid on the way. (But even Cleo’s relationship with Sophia isn’t much more than that of any employer with her boss. Sofia is often kind to Cleo, but she’s still “the help.”) But what follows becomes a vignette of heartbreak and devastation for Cleo. There’s one scene in particular that I won’t get into that left me shattered. (I saw Roma at a screening room by myself and, I’ll admit it here, with no one else around other than the projectionist, I just let the tears rip.)
Honestly, even some of the preliminary details I’ve given above kind of make me nervous because this is a movie to experience. I’ve seen some comparisons to Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and, well, maybe. At least I understand that both are stories about the complications of living life, but if Tokyo Story is a sad statement on what happens when kids abandon parents as we grow old, then Roma is its cosmic partner as far as what happens when men leave women and responsibilities behind and just don’t care.
If handled correctly, Netflix will have their first Best Picture Oscar nominee with Roma. I have no doubt about that. Netflix has given small theatrical runs to films before – last year Mudbound got a small, limited run and picked up some nominations but didn’t get the Best Picture nomination it deserved – but I hope they reconsider for Roma. This is a gorgeous movie, meticulously shot, that deserves and commands your full attention. I do worry, at home, on Netflix, some of that might be lost. And I’m not even a purist when it comes to this kind of thing. I’m not a “sanctity of the movie theater” person. I realize with my profession I see movies in the best of possible conditions and that the real movie theater experience has become kind of lousy. But Roma is a special movie that needs that all-encompassing experience. Alfonso Cuarón has made yet another movie that will transport you to another time and place. You will feel like you’re living it. I really hope you get to experience it like I did.
Roma is something special.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.