Review: Roma, awards season 2018, and how Netflix keeps eating everyone’s lunch

7 November 2018

Oscar Ragg reviews director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and broods over the streaming giant muscling its way into critical acclaim.

I’m not sure what the standard audience reaction is during the opening logos at a critic’s screening, but I’m going to hazard a guess it isn’t laughter. My friend and I, on a high from free canapés and popcorn handed out beforehand, can’t help but notice the chuckles coming from the industry people behind us as the “Netflix presents…” appears in the movie’s opening titles. It is kind of a weird sight. First, it’s weird to see the Netflix N on the big screen instead of Universal’s rotating globe, Columbia’s lady with the torch, or even A24’s sliding lines. But more importantly, it’s weird that it comes before this film.

Roma is the newest feature from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, after a five-year hiatus. The Mexican auteur is known for Gravity (which won him the Oscar for Best Director in 2013), 2006’s Children of Men, and the third Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban (far and away the best one, don’t @ me). I’d feel more than comfortable putting him in that upper group of the 10-15 best filmmakers working today—people whose films you may not always like, but have a body of work that is near-universally acclaimed, and demands respect. The idea, then, that his newest film is being distributed by Netflix is pretty wild. I say that because, predictably, Roma is real good.

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The film, a memoiristic account of Mexico in the early 1970s, finds Cuarón returning to his roots in just about every sense of the phrase. It’s his first non-English-language film since 2001’s incredible Y Tu Mamá También. All the dialogue in Roma is in either Spanish, or Indigenous Mixtec, the native language of Cleo, the housemaid of the family around which the film is centred. It’s heavily based on Cuarón’s memories of growing up—he’s described the maid whom Cleo is based on as “the woman who raised me”, and a dedication to her appears at the very end of the film. The director literally shot the film in the exact streets and houses where his real memories occurred, and went to family members so he could get the original pieces of furniture that decorated rooms. That’s a level of authenticity and meticulous, slavish detail that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it really shows up in the film.

Nothing in Roma feels like anything less than pure, unadorned reality. There’s a beauty in that. Cuarón’s films, particularly Children of Men, are known for their observational quality—you feel as if you’ve just been sat in the corner of a room, or on the side of a street, and you’re simply watching events take place. Important or meaningful things happen in the background, demanding you search the frame for what Cuarón, who served for the first time as his own cinematographer on Roma, wants you to see. The family sits down on a bench after an emotional scene, while in the background a wedding is taking place. A major plotline in the film is only ever developed through brief snippets of conversations that the camera never stops to linger on. I found myself wishing I could look at multiple things at once. The exquisite composition and staging mean that the camera is able to sit, languid, panning around occasionally to observe the goings-on of a given scene, which only adds to feeling of being a detached observer.

Technically speaking, Roma is incredible. The black and white photography doesn’t have that grainy, retro look that you might be expecting for a story set in this time and place. Instead, Cuarón uses rich, flawless 65mm film to create an image that is as clear as if we were living it—enhancing the sense that we are getting to dive right into Cuarón’s own memory. Yet, even with this sense of realism, it is still one of the prettiest films I’ve seen in a long time. The way he uses light is absolutely mesmerising, working with reflections, silhouettes, and even fire to create a 135-minute film that feels as if it’s made up entirely of renaissance paintings. The sound design, likewise, is acutely powerful—waves crash, people yell over each other, and the streets of Mexico City sound full of life, adding a weight to every scene.

Cuarón also uses no score—the lack of music means you’re given no help, no alarm bells telling you how a scene should make you feel. Huge, heartbreaking emotional moments are just put in front of you, with no adornments: the movie is confident in the strength of the story it’s telling. By the time I’d reached the end of the film, I was so carefully attuned to everything that was happening—I knew there was going to be no hints, no early signals if something important was about to happen. I can’t think of another time when I’ve been engaged so thoroughly in a film.

If all of that sounds like a lot of work to watch, that’s because it is. You can’t properly experience this beautiful, beautiful movie if it doesn’t have your full attention. This deeply affecting, painfully honest story is so genuine and real that I imagine it’s easy to miss its magic. Roma is a film that gives back to the viewer only what they put in—if you engage with this story, you will be rewarded. That’s why it’s so bizarre that Netflix, famed for their exhaustive viewing-data-driven algorithms that tell them what content to create, chose to acquire this film. Their shows and movies are viewed on laptops, phones, TVs—when I’ve got Netflix streaming on my TV at home, I have to consciously hold back from reaching for my phone in all but the most engaging scenes of a film. So what does it mean to put a movie like Roma on your TV? And what drove Netflix to try this?

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One day in April last year, the Cannes Film Festival announced for the first time that they would be screening two feature films from Netflix: Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. Cannes is a big deal. If you’re promoting a film on the international arthouse circuit, it’s one of the first places you should be looking to go. Netflix was being pretty transparent with its aims here. Bong and Baumbach are two known quantities: acclaimed, respected directors, and in throwing money at them and sending the result to Cannes, Netflix was openly displaying its ambition to start producing critically-acclaimed films, the kind that could bring home awards.

This would be one of the last steps in its apparent path to world domination, an unstoppable rise that I find pretty scary. Right now, there are literally only five countries left in the entire world where the service is not available. According to Screen Australia, one in three people in this country currently have access to a Netflix account. In the USA, a more hotly contested landscape, that figure is one in four. Meanwhile, though, last year saw America’s domestic cinema attendance drop to a record 25-year low, according to Business Insider—Netflix continues to take everyone else on the entertainment landscape and smack them around. Since House of Cards dropped in 2013, it has put out a formidable array of exclusive content that’s starting to really compete with traditional movie studios—their 2018 content budget is reported to be around 12 to 13 billion dollars.

However, despite many of its series doing well at the Emmys in recent years, Netflix’s exclusive films have yet to really make a dent critically, and relations are getting increasingly testy with the cinematic establishment. When it took Okja and Meyerowitz to Cannes in 2017, Netflix was met with some strong opposition from many of the French film festival’s executive directors. They believe movies that don’t screen in theatres should be ineligible for Cannes competition, and thus Netflix’s films should be barred from the festival entirely. While the critics in my Roma audience last week chuckled at the sight of the Netflix logo, The Verge reported that it was literally met with boos when Okja premiered at Cannes last year. Sure enough, after Cannes 2017, an old rule was reinstated, one that requires all films that screen at the festival to get a release in French cinemas. This screws Netflix over—French law requires a wait period of three whole years between a film screening in theatres and arriving on streaming services, so for a Netflix film to arrive in France at the same time as it does everywhere else, it can’t get a theatrical run there. And so after Netflix’s very public battle with Cannes, a symbol of the cinematic establishment, Roma was pulled from the festival this year. And you know what? Netflix doing just fine anyway.

* * *

Roma, of course, is Netflix’s biggest crack at awards yet. It is an incredible achievement in technical filmmaking, and a powerful emotional story, the kind that The Academy loves. Cuarón has won Oscars before. Even now, after it has screened at various major film festivals since September, early predictions for the Academy Award for Best Picture are mostly tied between Roma and Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born. Okja and Meyerowitz were both acclaimed last year, as was Mudbound, another Netflix film, but this is the first time the streaming service has nabbed a serious contender.

“Awards Season”, that period from roughly now until around January every year, when studios drop their major critically-resonant films in time to qualify for the Oscars, is dominated by “narratives”. Last year, a big one was Greta Gerwig, the absolute legend who made Lady Bird, and her position as essentially the only female director of a big awards-aspiring film in the middle of the rising #metoo movement. This year, there’s been a lot of discussion about The Academy floating, and then cancelling, the idea of a Best “Popular” Film Oscar, and what that means for a critically-successful box office smash like Black Panther. Roma comes with a built-in, winning narrative of its own: the old, established major studios suddenly being forced to compete with Netflix, the new-age disruptor from the tech world. And you can bet Netflix is going to throw everything they’ve got into an awards campaign driven by this very idea.

I guess I should be happy that an amazing film like Roma is going to get such a massive platform, and is thus going to be seen by many more people than it otherwise would have. But no—firstly, I’m a pretentious movie snob, and I like to prattle on to people about great films they haven’t heard of; and secondly, it kind of weirds me out that Netflix might be able to just take its vast amount of money, point it at a good director, and conquer the entire film industry’s awards system. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and I hope I’ve made that clear, but Netflix is still a powerful company that’s making moves on an industry that I care deeply about. It scares me a bit.

If Roma cops a Best Picture nomination, which right now seems extremely likely, it’ll be a recognisable sign that the balance of power in the entertainment landscape is shifting. If it wins, it’ll be an absolute game-changer. Putting aside the fact that no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture, and so that in itself is unprecedented, a Netflix film winning would be seen by many as a loss for the major studios, and a win for the streaming giant that is taking aim at their traditional practices. Ostensibly, Netflix believes that to certify itself as the leading entertainment company in the 21st century, it must have a Best Picture Oscar. And if it keeps pumping out movies like Roma, eventually, it will.


Before its Netflix release on December 14, Roma will screen at the Melbourne Cine Latino Film Festival’s opening night on November 13 at The Astor Theatre, and then again at The Como and Palace Westgarth throughout the Festival. Netflix is literally everywhere.


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