It’s not even September yet but if there is a better film than Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” on the way this year, we should count ourselves utterly spoiled. The 56-year-old filmmaker’s ode to youth, memory and the medium that would become his life is as indelible as cinema gets. It’s a masterpiece of then and now, infused with neorealist conventions captured with state-of-the-art digital photography, and it’s all but guaranteed to secure streaming giant Netflix’s first best picture bid to date.
Following a world bow in Venice, the film unspooled for U.S. audiences at the Telluride Film Festival Friday night in tandem with a tribute to Cuarón’s career. It’s the perfect time to raise that glass, not only on the occasion of his most personal film to date but 27 years into a filmography that has balanced art-house gems and big-studio blockbusters with equal aplomb.
Cuarón, who won Oscars for both directing and editing 2013’s “Gravity” (also a Telluride selection), meticulously recreated his childhood for the project. Ninety percent of the scenes came from his memory, and his production team reproduced many of the settings in and around Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood, including Cuarón’s family home (fit with most of the original furniture). He cast a mixture of actors and non-actors, with particular deference to those who were identical to their real-life counterparts, and he withheld screenplays, allowing his performers to discover their scenarios day-by-day while filming in continuity.
“The drive was about moments, emotional moments that were pulled out of memories that would build one on top of the other,” the director said recently.
It might sound like some form of nostalgia onanism. It’s anything but. What arises through Cuarón’s lens, focused on mundane family dramas and specifically Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a surrogate for the Cuaróns’ nanny, is a towering humanist portrait. But while the film’s intimacy is its hallmark, in true Cuarón fashion, “Roma” also concerns itself with the macro. The drama is situated at a pivotal political moment in Mexico’s history, including a riveting depiction of the Corpus Christi massacre of student demonstrators in 1971, among other socio-political details.
Aparicio, in her first and perhaps even last role (she is a teacher in Mexico), anchors the proceedings with poise, a perfectly utilized filter for the film’s considerable emotions. But if there is an awards play in the cast, it might be Marina de Tavira as a matriarch shouldering the responsibility of family, the heartbreak of infidelity and the shifting dynamics of her domestic reality.
After years of working with three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón served as his own director of photography on the film. Shooting large-format with the Alexa 65 camera and tapping high-dynamic-range (HDR) functionality that provides a rich spread of black-and-white tones, he’s crafted a film you want to frame and hang on your wall. But even though Netflix is considering a proper theatrical rollout, much of that diligence will still be lost on a consumer audience that doesn’t have access to the high-end laser projection technology that will really make Cuarón’s work pop. (“Roma” will, however, be available in HDR on the service. Netflix members must have a supported device and be subscribed to its premium plan for that.)
As it pertains to the Oscar season, however, it will be interesting to see whether cinematographers will be willing to make the leap in nominating a shooter-director. After all, the branch has ignored revered work from Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”) in the past. But if “Roma” isn’t deserving of that kind of attention then it’s probably time we all packed it in.
Elsewhere, given the painstaking recreations, it seems design elements should be on the table as well, particularly production design. And Cuarón will easily find himself in the mix for director recognition yet again; filmmakers are sure to adore what he’s conjured. The foreign film Oscar, meanwhile, seems like a foregone conclusion. (“Roma” has quietly been on screens in Mexico all week in order to qualify as the country’s submission.)
Netflix has a wide assortment on offer this year, from the bleak comedy of the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” to the wrenching immediacy of Paul Greengrass’ “22 July,” both Venice selections. David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King” will open the Toronto fest within the week as well. But “Roma” is the clear stand-out and the one that should, finally, bring the company a top Oscar notice. “Beasts of No Nation” went nowhere with the Academy. “Mudbound” came close to best picture love last year but fell short. It feels like it’s finally time.
And at the risk of taking the full plunge, in a year when Academy brass has instituted plans to pander to “popular” entertainment, what a statement it would be for voters to hand the top prize to a foreign art film on a streaming platform whose “popularity” won’t be quantified by traditional means.