The opening shot of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” focuses on a tile floor, as we hear the sounds of someone scrubbing off-screen. Then a wash of water covers the tiles, and in the reflection we see the sky above, including an airplane.
It’s one of many stunning shots in “Roma,” which premiered last Friday on Netflix and is considered a shoo-in to be the first Netflix original film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Cuaron served as his own cinematographer, and his lustrous black-and-white compositions, mixing long single takes with breathtaking close-ups, demand a big-screen viewing.
But while Netflix has released “Roma” theatrically in a few cities (including Milwaukee, at the Downer Theatre), so far the only way Madison audiences can see it is on their phones, laptops and TVs through Netflix. It’s a shame, but the film loses less in the transition to the small screen than one might fear. And if the film is nominated for an Oscar, it may end up in more theaters.
In his first film since the Oscar-winning 2013 film “Gravity,” Cuaron has made a personal film inspired by his childhood in Mexico City in the 1970s. While set in an upper-middle-class household much like the one Cuaron grew up in, the focus is less on the family than on the family’s young, live-in maid and nanny, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
The film explores the complicated relationship that Cleo has with her employers. They love her and need her, but part of that need comes from relying on her to take care of the children and do the chores. They dote on her, but they don’t really know her. The class distinction is unacknowledged by both sides, and often unnoticed. But it’s there.
Both Cleo and the mother of the house, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) go through personal crises at about the same time. Cleo gets pregnant by her boyfriend, who immediately abandons her. Meanwhile, the father of the house goes on a business trip and never returns, leaving the mother to pick up the pieces.
Cleo and Sofia’s storylines play off against the wider scope of Mexico City, which was undergoing civil unrest at the time. “Roma” is something of a companion piece to Cuaron’s breakthrough 2000 film “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which focused on the personal drama at its center, but showed us the wider world in the margins. In "Roma," there are hints of the political turmoil in the background of several scenes, in bits of overheard conversation, until they boil over into a horrific recreation of a real-life 1971 massacre in which 120 students were killed.
Cuaron’s signature long takes immerse the viewer in this environment, the camera slowly panning to drink in the details of this world he’s recreated from his memory. Some scenes have hundreds of extras, such as an amazing tracking shot that follows Cleo as she runs through several city blocks at night, the streets teeming with life.
When the movie’s over, we feel like we’ve spent time in this world, living with this family through tragedy and healing. I hope I get the chance to revisit it on the big screen sometime.
Also on streaming: Netflix has another big original movie release lined up this Friday with “Bird Box.” Susanne Bier (“Brothers”) directs Sandra Bullock in this post-apocalyptic tale as a mother trying to protect her two children in a world where people are mysteriously driven to suicide, unless they keep themselves blindfolded.
“Marvel’s Runaways” premieres its second season on Hulu Friday. The series mixes teen drama with superhero action, following a group of teenagers who go on the lam when they realize their parents are actually supervillains. And you thought your parents were lame.