In another universe, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Fred Astaire as Alfonso Cuarón’s long-lost uncle. After all, they share the same filmic philosophy: “Either I’m gonna dance, or the camera’s gonna dance—and I’m gonna dance.” Astaire was in front of the camera, tap-tap-tapping away. Cuarón is behind it, and while his stars don’t so much dance as they do simply live, it’s just as captivating.
The American film industry has long been absorbed in realism. Actors are lauded for their believability, cinematographers for their ability to capture what the human eye sees, and writers for their ability to capture the way we talk. While Roma is full of Italian Neo-realist inspiration, it often ventures into the absurd and the abstract.
Cuarón’s camera surveys his scenes in a somewhat voyeuristic way that highlights the surreal aspects of our everyday lives. In one three-second span, an absentee father accompanied by his mistress dashes obliviously behind his son, who vehemently denies this. In another, New Years Eve festivities are interrupted by an impromptu fire fighting mission, overshadowed by a drunken party goer singing amidst the chaos.
Netflix’s Roma is not larger than life. It is life, pedestrian in its subject matter, quotidian on our televisions and laptop screens (and if you’re a monster, your phone), but deeply human. Our attention wanders as we watch it. In the comfort of our couches, we miss seemingly unimportant seconds, or details you wouldn’t know were there. It is, of course, a celebration of the everyday, of the Mexican indigenous working class, and most importantly, of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). But in its smaller presentation, it becomes a celebration of itself. The ability to screen a Golden Lion winner on your iPhone is a feat of technology, a feat of the entertainment industry. But Roma is the wrong movie to emblemize this feat.
The film itself has reverence for the film industry. At three points in the film, significant events take place in or outside of a movie theatre. Furthermore, the film’s sound design, though not impossible, is not easy to replicate at home, and would require audiophiliac tendencies and a corresponding budget. The film supersedes others of its ilk because of its attention to detail. Not in the continuity or set dressing detail, both of which are impeccable in the movie, but rather in the detail in constructing a world that pushes itself beyond the screen. Dialogue plays from behind you, offscreen sounds continue to your lateral, and shocking moments are given appropriate volume and detail. The sound of glass breaking, for example, is jarring not only in its immediate shock value, but in the resonance of its higher frequencies. And when the movie crescendos into its climax, it resoundingly deserves the biggest screen in the world.
Whether or not Roma’s Netflix distribution will have helped more people see the film is uncertain (unless Netflix suddenly becomes more generous with their ratings). The answer is most likely yes, since the cost of a ticket to Roma in 70mm costs as much as a month and a half of a Netflix subscription, and the film industry is still dominated by the rules of supply and demand. But those who see it on Netflix will not get the complete experience, the one that sends shivers down your spine and ingrains itself into your memory. It’ll be a good movie, sure, maybe even an Oscar movie, but it won’t shake you.
This is unfortunate, because Roma, Cuarón’s work as director, writer, and cinematographer, and Cleo herself, are all larger than life. Astonishing in their complexity, timeless in their monochrome, and extraordinary in their ordinariness. They take the supernatural in us and the world around us and put it on a screen. It is this feeling of pure awe that is lost on the smaller screen.
Contrary to my tone, this is not the end of the world. Movies, unlike plays, enjoy eight to 10 week runs, and then are consigned to the iTunes Store, limited screenings at arthouse movie theaters, or, ironically enough, Netflix. Very few people in the last 15 years have seen a Kubrick movie in theaters. But Roma deserved a longer run in theaters than it got, simply because more people deserved to experience it in its best form.
So while I implore you to watch Roma in whatever form possible, I want to assure you that Netflix’s Roma and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma are two very different movies. While both will impact you, only one of them will stay with you for months, if not years, to come.