I haven’t gone to a movie in a theater this full in longer than I can remember, probably since living in New York. But the historic non-profit on the east side was the only cinema screening Roma in all of Portland, and probably, like me, people had seen just one week of showtimes on the webpage, and knew this could be their only window. The main auditorium seats nearly 400, in front of a huge screen where I’d seen Dunkirk last year in 70mm. The 6:30pm showing the day before had sold out, a Tuesday. And what I can’t figure out is if this artificial scarcity creating packed houses is all part of Netflix’s plan. It seemed as if pressure from the film community and Alfonso Cuarón himself led them to agree to a limited theatrical release of Roma, the first time they’ve ever done that for one of their movies, though maybe they’d actually counted on this all along. But what they want are awards, and they don’t need audiences for that, they just need Academy member votes, and half of them will watch everything on screeners anyway.
What I do know is that when Ted Sarandos released that absolutely hilarious statement in response to Netflix be being banned from Cannes (pop the artisanal popcorn and read Alissa Wilkinson’s primer here, if you haven’t been avidly following this drama all year), in which the head of Netflix literally said the words “we are 100% about the art of cinema,” they were indeed lying as badly as it seemed. Because anyone who truly cared about ‘the art of cinema’ would never have bound a movie like Roma to be primarily released on a streaming service. I hadn’t seen a movie in a theater that full in ages, nor have I recently seen something that more OUGHT to be seen in a theater. Not even the last one I saw on that same screen.
Every shot in Roma is like a photograph that makes you stop in the middle of the gallery. Every camera movement is like panning over a tapestry. Even if it weren’t for such a rich depth of field that my breath would catch in my throat watching it, the sound design alone asks to please be played in a theater, please let as many people as possible experience this intoxicatingly immersive 360 degree soundscape that had my friends and me thinking for a moment that there were birds up in the rafters, or that someone had opened the door behind us, to a street in Mexico City in 1970.
Roma is a deeply realist movie, that Cuarón made about his childhood maid and nanny, rendered with a near-surrealist visual language that makes it feel like a mythic saga, or a movement of music, or a dive into water. The movie follows Cleo, a young indigenous housekeeper, through a tumultuous year of her life that happens to coincide with a very troubled year in Mexico’s history, the two twining together during the most heart-clenching sequence in the movie, in which I just started crying, overwhelmed by the tidal swell and pull of it all.
It’s a beautiful movie, a gorgeous movie. It reminds me of Ida, not simply for also being shot in lyrical black and white, but because both are unhurried films that follow watchful, quiet female leads. The natural critique of Roma is that Cleo is too quiet, and that this speaks to a lack of imagination or empathy on Cuarón’s part, that he defaulted to the trope of the strong & silent help. But to me, nothing about this movie felt so thoughtless, feeling instead infused with such specificity and care and personal feeling. It’s rare that I’ve seen something so clearly made for someone, out of deep love, and sure, mystification, but in the universal experience of how the souls of those we love are always somehow a vaster sea than we’ll ever be able to fathom. The mysteries of the human heart, the beauty and trauma of a passed time, and the sounds of a child’s memories of Mexico.