Alfonso Cuaron has been dazzling American audiences for more than a decade now (after initially wowing people in Mexico) with his long-winding visions that touch on life, birth, death and other broad themes, with his previous film (Gravity) winning a few Oscars for its technical brilliance. With his follow-up work Roma there were a few different things going out of the box, first its delivery method with the streaming service Netflix, then the use of black and white, and the use of a largely unknown cast, but in the end it's all worth the investment.
Cuaron also wrote the film, set in 1970 and 1971 Mexico City and following an indigenous maid, her work with a family and her life over the course of that time period. Cuaron set the inspiration for it in his own memories as a boy, and it shows the maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), her fellow maid and friend Adela (Nancy Garcia), and Cleo's friendship with Sofia (Marina de Tavira), as she tries to keep her marriage together while raising four kids. The film shows their lives unfold in joy, heartbreak and tragedy.
As the time the film came out I remember some kerfuffle about whether or not to see the film in a theater or in the comfort of your home, on your couch while you pay $12-$16 a month. And at the time of seeing the film (like another recent Netflix release by a cinematic auteur with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman), I tried to watch, but stopped and started, because you know, you can do that with Netflix. And while I think or remember that theater vs. Netflix was about the picture quality and experiencing black and white cinema in a cinema (and if that's not correct, someone please say so), the larger point of having the time out of your hands is one that cannot be understated.
There is a sense of optimism or hope from Cleo, she quietly goes about her job and does what she can, but she wants a better life for herself. You see it in a somewhat dramatically obvious moment when she looks at the sky with one of the children, but she also wants more when it comes to her relationship with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), her boyfriend. She wants to see it out of the family she works for as well, but obstacles make it hard for her or them to overcome them sometime.
There is an emotional rawness to this largely unknown cast of actors that makes things feel real, even as the events of "El Halconazo" unfold in a dramatic re-telling. There is a choreography in these particular Cuaron extended shots that make you have a certain sense of anticipation, bordering on dread, and when some of the endings happen, even then you're unsure of the gut punch. But the other quieter moments unfold organically, as one would expect life to. Aparicio is tremendous as is de Tavira (both were nominated for Oscars), but the cast is natural, and Cuaron tries to keep much of the story as natural as possible to allow for the reactions we see onscreen, and it's a tremendous accomplishment.
In Roma, Alfonso Cuaron shows the world a peek into his life or that of someone he loved like they were a member of the family, and showed the struggles of life in Mexico City as not only a boy but as a human being. He gives us faces that we can relate to and do, and makes us root for them to have better lives, even as our minds cannot comprehend how this could happen. It makes Cuaron's place in the world now all the more impactful.The Blu-ray:
The film is presented in 2.39:1 widescreen for the world to see, and looks about as good as the "Ultra HD" version that Netflix touts. Cuaron was aware that shooting on film in black and white could potentially lose detail and every ounce of detail can be discerned in Cleo's face and smile, and in fabrics of the movie theater, and black levels while deep present excellent contrast to the various shades of white and grey in the film, (the water on the floor in the opening scenes in different colors and then shimmering a little when the plane flies overhead is another case of the image getting everything possible for the viewer, and all looks excellent.The Sound:
The Dolby Atmos track is muted but effective, and when the scenes call for it provides a perfect experience, whether in the movie, or as the family car pulls into the garage at home, or in larger moments either in the ocean (with the waves crashing over from right to left) or the protests where crowd noise and action is all around. A larger scene where a man is shot out of a cannon gets a slight delay in noise as one would expect being there as well. Quieter moments include consistent dialogue which require no correction. Criterion does this one well.Extras:
Where the rubber meets the road for this release of Roma is in the extras, with Criterion putting in a lot of work. Some of it can be credited to Netflix for the first extra, but the others are so good, it's ridiculous. "The Road to Roma" (1:12:53) is a look at the film from production to a lot of other things on the set, whether it was Cuaron recreating the look of his childhood with the rooms in the family house, to the shooting approach and storytelling. He tells of Cleo and Adela's friendship, their language and the class differences therein, and gets a little into shot breakdowns and the intent of some, trying to take away any semblance of a tribute anywhere, and the joy of doing more than 60 takes of a six-minute scene. He discusses how he worked with the actors and shot the scenes, his personal connections, and handling the cinematography this time (longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki normally has those honors, and contributed some assistance to Cuaron). It's a really excellent piece that sets a great first impression.
The other extras are also up to the task; "Snapshots from the Set" (32:00) includes more on-set interviews with cast and crew, and the crew's thoughts on the way Cuaron worked on this production, and the challenges of shooting in some of the locations (the crew had been robbed at one point). Screen tests and costume and makeup footage are also included, the detail involved and the comparison of some of the protests (in stills form) to what Cuaron shot. Another great piece, as are two segments on post-production: "The Look of Roma" (20:43) shows why everyone likes working with Cuaron, and shows the visual effects passes on the film at various points (more than you think!) and the comparisons of shooting 1.37:1 to widescreen, going with black and white and 65mm, and the pros and cons of shooting, lighting and working with the format. It's both technical and informative and well worth the time, as is "The Sound of Roma" (27:14) show off the Dolby Atmos, and the sound and environment for the film and the intent of execution. They show how various scenes were handled from a sound perspective and the mix and sound elements involved with coverage, and show some fascinating looks at how they were obtained, and on the big moments in the piece. My favorite piece was "Roma Brings Us Together" (18:32), where Cuaron's producers discussed trying to make sure as many Mexicans saw the film as possible, and they helped modernize some theaters, held outdoor showings, and even drove around a big rig that was a mobile theater that could seat 90(!) for a screening. A trailer and teaser (3:47) complete things, but I should note that all of the extras cover the film chronologically, and all are superb. When Criterion wants to pull off a truly special version of a film for their library, it works really well as this does, with a mix of information on the production and on technical details, that a Cuaron commentary (while nice) isn't missed. Oh, there's also a 100-page book about the film which includes interviews, stories and photos, some of which unfold to capture the scope of a shot. Really exceptional work.Final Thoughts:
I haven't been so excited about a Blu-ray release in a while, but Roma is the type of film that hit me on a couple of levels; first was the emotional one, with the actors pulling off some difficult jobs tremendously, and then on the supplemental one, with a set of extras that as far as being exhaustive go, I haven't seen on a Criterion disc in quite some time, to say nothing about how great it looks on disc. Criterion puts a stake in the ground for Roma being one of the best releases of an early 2020 and I can't disagree.