Roma is the Netflix movie you should see on the biggest screen

Alfonso Cuarón's masterwork deserves better than a laptop screen. It's in theatres from 21 November.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

Roma begins with the familiar parade of logos for the companies that made it. Like the rest of the film, they're all in black and white -- including a monochrome Netflix logo. Stripped of its familiar red colour, the instantly recognisable N logo is an incongruous sight, and perhaps sums up the awkward relationship between this masterful movie and the streaming service bringing it to your screen.

Roma is the latest film from Alfonso Cuarón, Oscar-winning director of Gravity, Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien. It's one of his most personal films, a meditation on family set against the hazy backdrop of a turbulent time in Mexico's history. It's also hugely cinematic, a 65mm monochrome masterpiece of heartrending human emotion and commanding visual prowess.

As such, the film's natural habitat is on the big screen. It's won plaudits at multiple film festivals from Venice to London, and will be released in selected theatres from 21 November before it's on Netflix. You'll be able to stream from 14 December.

Now, sure, arty black-and-white Spanish-language bildungsroman films aren't everybody's cup of tortillas. But if you can see it on the big screen, you'll be rewarded. Partly because it looks so great, and partly because it's a sedate film that needs a real investment on the part of the viewer.

You need to buy into Roma right from the opening shot, which gazes for what seems like forever at a tiled floor. When you've paid your money and you're sitting in the theatre, you're invested in the film, and you're more likely to lean into this hypnotic image. Perhaps it'll occur to you that by opening with a shot of the floor, the movie is literally grounded, a visual metaphor for the emotions playing out on the street and in the home. Perhaps you'll spot the passing aeroplane reflected in the mirror-like surface of the damp floor and muse that for these characters the prospect of escape is barely glimpsed, remote, impossible. Perhaps you'll recall your own memories of the tiny details of your former lives.

Or perhaps you'll reach for your phone. If you're watching on Netflix, this lengthy, stately opening practically dares you to reach for the skip button.

I don't mean to patronise you, by the way. If you've made it this far into this review, you've clearly got a pretty impressive attention span. You may even have quite a nice TV, too -- watching a movie on Netflix is no longer synonymous with tiny screens on phones and laptops .

It's just that Roma is so damn beautiful and so rich with detail. The camera meanders along teeming Mexico City streets bursting with colourful characters -- metaphorically, it's black-and-white, remember -- and acute observations. On your phone screen, for example, try spotting that the guy waving a gun at a riot is wearing a "Love Is..." T-shirt. 

Roma loosely focuses on Cleo, a maid in the home of a middle-class family bustling with children. As she goes about her life, we get glimpses of the turmoil within her employers' marriage as well as outside the home. We overhear hints at the political and social unrest which leads to El Halconazo, the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre, in June 1971.

The story, as unhurried and naturalistic as it is, packs a devastating emotional punch as Cleo learns she is pregnant. Yet it's filled with hope, as life continues day by day.

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Director Alfonso Cuarón and actress Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo.

Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Told in matter-of-fact vignettes charting the seismic disruptions that take place in our everyday lives, Roma sounds like a cramped kitchen sink drama. Yet Cuarón, who was also the cinematographer, brings masterful cinematic verve to this ostensibly simple tale. Look closely at the movement of the camera as it explores the family home, or a holiday hacienda, or a drunken shooting party in the woods, or a riot in a department store. Everywhere, the camera follows the same graceful, unhurried arc across the screen.

Cuarón evokes the quality of memory with his shimmering cinematography and keen eye for detail. Take, for example, the father of the family. At first, he's barely there, a looming presence in the home even when he's away. When he does arrive, we see him only in close-ups: his hands, his cigarettes, his dangling car keys. His beloved car, a huge machine too big for the garage, is a lovely visual metaphor that gains a delicious pay-off. I wasn't brought up in Mexico City, but these evocative sketches had me recalling my own childhood view of my father and my family.

Though you don't have to know anything about Mexican society or history, a little context adds colour -- again, metaphorically -- and texture. My colleague Gabriel Sama grew up in Mexico and knows the streets of Colonia Roma well; from his fascinating take on the film I learned that the disenfranchised character who finds belonging in martial arts had in fact joined a right-wing group preying on disaffected young men, giving the film a chilling resonance with contemporary events. And I learned that when Cleo's subtitled dialogue is shown in brackets, it's because she's speaking a rural dialect that marks her out as an underclass to her sophisticated urban employers.

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Family matters in Roma.

Carlos Somonte

Dealing with class, politics, family, gender roles, and much more, Roma is a powerful cinematic experience. It's up to you how you absorb that, on the screen of your choice.

The thing is, Netflix doesn't need you to actually watch Roma. Netflix wants you to subscribe, and as long as you pay your money, you can take your choice and watch as much or as little as you like. House of Cards, Stranger Things, Marvel, Maniac -- to be cynical about it, they're all just trailers to entice you to part with your cash.

Roma fills something of a gap in Netflix's output. Cinephiles are alarmed by Netflix's disregard for anything made before the year 2000, while other streaming services win plaudits for producing heavyweight modern classics. Manchester by the Sea bagged Amazon a couple of Oscars, and this year's Beautiful Boy could repeat the trick for Netflix's rival.

Meanwhile, big Netflix movies like Mute, Bright and Outlaw King are largely derided. Amazon has Academy Awards; Netflix has Adam Sandler.

Which is where Roma comes in. By backing Cuarón's very arthouse-feeling movie, as well as recruiting the iconic likes of the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese, Netflix is trying to develop its cinema cred.

Still, who cares if Netflix is releasing Roma in theatres only to get a look-in at the Oscars. Take advantage -- see it on the big screen where it belongs.

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