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Alfonso Cuarón, Roma, 2018, digital 65 mm, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

I KNOW MONEY IS TIGHT, and given your $10.99 monthly Netflix bill, why should you pay for a movie theater ticket to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a movie shot digitally that isn’t even in color, when you’ll be able to stream it anytime you like, beginning December 14? Trust me, if it’s at all possible, get to a theater. Financed independently and then sold to Netflix, Roma plays for three weeks in art cinemas worldwide before it begins its streaming life. Well, half-life. Some of you may know this writer as the fanatic who insists that Warhol’s 16-mm celluloid movies become “nothing at all”—thanks, Lou Reed—when transferred to digital formats. But many of my film critic colleagues who saw Roma on the festival circuit (it won the Golden Lion in Venice) have made the same plea, and having described the movie as “sublime,” “rapturous,” and so forth, they are worried not only about your viewing experience but also for their own reputations if you see it on your home screen, where you may find it boring despite it being the most gorgeous digital narrative movie ever made, in part because it never attempts to imitate the look of film.

With Roma, the problem isn’t about the transfer from one moving-image medium to another—Roma’s production is digital beginning to end—but rather about screen size. Shot in digital 65 mm in a super-widescreen ratio of 2.35:1, the film is composed of lengthy lateral panning and tracking shots combined with similarly extended static shots in which the deep-space dynamic between foreground and background activity and the tension between what’s centered and what’s hovering at the edges invite your eyes to travel within the frame, giving you the sense of never having enough time to take in everything that’s going on. (Roma is the Lawrence of Arabia of intimate, cluttered family dramas.) Viewed, however, on even the largest home screens, background actions and tucked-away details will prove illegible, and as a result, the movie will seem slow and purposeless. Cinema is a spatiotemporal medium. Mess with the size of the space, the time goes awry.

Roma is the Lawrence of Arabia of intimate, cluttered family dramas.

The dynamic between the things we try to keep in the center of our consciousness and the things we push aside or ignore is what makes Roma a great film, one which revivifies André Bazin’s paradoxical theory of cinema—that it mummifies the past, thereby making eternal what was necessarily contingent. Roma is an investigation of childhood memories, comprehended from the more knowledgeable vantage of adulthood. It is a fictional narrative based in autobiography. Cuarón grew up in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood, and was one of four siblings—three boys and a girl—in a middle-class intellectual family. He was nine years old in 1970, the year in which the film begins. But Roma is not a first-person film, nor does it privilege the point of view of any of the children. Rather, it centers on Cleo (amazing novice actor Yalitza Aparicio), the children’s nanny, who also is responsible for cleaning the sprawling multilevel house, including the carport where the family dog lives, shits, and pisses. Cleo scoops up the shit, washes the floor, and then she feeds the dog. It’s both a running gag and a metaphor that describes her role in the family. She makes life better through her service and offers the four siblings unconditional love, which is reciprocated by at least one child, the one who made this film in order to pay tribute to the woman Cleo is based on—Liboria Rodíguez, now seventy-four years old. “For Libo” is the last credit that appears on the screen.

Alfonso Cuarón, Roma, 2018, digital 65 mm, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

It’s not possible to know what in Roma is fact and what is fiction. The microcosm and the macrocosm seldom cohere in real life with the narrative shapeliness and force that they do here. But it is certainly the memory of the woman who hugged him awake every morning and kissed him at bedtime every night and may have even saved his life that inspired this madly personal film, which Cuarón wrote, directed, photographed, and edited, and for which he replicated his childhood home on another street in the same neighborhood, decorating this facsimile movie set with furniture and objects that family members had taken from the original. When he was a child, how much, if anything, did he understand about the class difference between his family and his nanny—an indigenous woman from the impoverished state of Oaxaca who speaks Mixtec rather than Spanish—and how the early 1970s government appropriated land, leaving people homeless and without livelihoods? The conflict between the privileged and the poor was tearing Mexico apart, and it is Cleo who takes us deep into the conflict.

In an early scene, one of the siblings mentions seeing a student shot dead for tossing a water balloon at a military policeman. Sofía (Marina De Tavira), the children’s high-strung mother, shakes her head but continues eating, as does everyone else. Catastrophe is normal. Death is everywhere. And life goes on, despite an earthquake, a forest fire, the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre, in which the government killed more than a hundred students protesting its policies. Sofía’s husband abandons her and their children to live with his mistress. Cleo is abandoned by her boyfriend, when she tells him she’s pregnant. She fears that Sofía will fire her, but instead the two women bond over the fecklessness and cruelty of the men they loved. It is rare for a movie to have one good mother, but Roma has two resourceful, nurturing women and also a grandmother who’s always there when she’s needed. On the other hand, with the exception of the family’s reliable driver, the adult male characters in the film are thoroughly reprehensible—privileged pricks or fascists in training.

Alfonso Cuarón, Roma, 2018, digital 65 mm, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

Cuarón’s films have always had memorable set pieces—who could forget the terrorist explosion at the opening of Children of Men (2005)? In Roma, these adrenalized moments, seen through Cleo’s eyes, are measures not only of her own vulnerability and strength but also of the fragility of life itself. After Cleo has sex for the first time with her boyfriend Fermín, he appears in the doorway to the bathroom, naked (the impressive full frontal startled me, so I can’t begin to imagine the effect it had on sexually naive Cleo). Using the shower curtain rod as a weapon, he shows off a martial arts routine as if he’s making a gift of love to his awestruck conquest. A few months later, after he runs out on her, an earthquake hits the hospital where, after having her first neonatal exam, Cleo is looking through the window of the premature babies ward. The nurses are rushing around to try to save the infants when a piece of debris shatters an incubator, stilling the tiny body inside. What’s extraordinary about these scenes is how emotionally piercing they are, even though Cleo sees them, as we see this movie, from a distance.

Making one last attempt to locate Fermín, Cleo journeys to what will soon become one of the worst slums in Mexico. This is the world that Cuarón knew nothing of as a boy but which nevertheless conditioned every moment spent in the relative safety of a nice house on a nice street in a Mexico City neighborhood that was already beginning to fall apart at the edges. Cleo brought that other world with her, but the children in her charge could not even imagine its existence. Roma is not so much a memory piece but a corrective to memory. It becomes more harrowing before it ends, but love triumphs in an ocean ending that’s more oceanic than anything I’ve experienced in the movies, and maybe in life itself.

Roma opened in select theaters on November 21 and will begin streaming on Netflix on December 14.

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