Roma has proved to be the surprise hit film of the current award season. It has received an amazing 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actress. However, it has also been the most divisive of this year’s major films. For example, it received only 3 nominations at the Golden Globes (winning Best Director and Foreign Language Film) but had a healthier 7 nominations at the BAFTAs (at which it won Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography).
There are a number of ways in which Roma is a very unusual contender for Best Picture at the Oscars. First of all Roma was made by, and shown on, Netflix rather than coming through studio/cinema release, and shows how Netflix’s enormous cinematic spending power is starting to pay back in an increasing level of critical success. (It obviously had to have a very limited tactical cinema release in order to qualify for the Oscars, under current rules). Next, Roma is shot in black and white, which is very atmospheric, but not at all common in Best Picture nominated films. Finally, and most importantly, Roma is not in English language, which is very rare indeed for a Best Picture nominee. In fact, only 9 foreign language films in the history of the Oscars have previously been nominated for Best Picture (and none of them have won) – La Grande Illusion (1937); Z (1969); The Emigrants (1971); Cries and Whispers (1972); Il Postino (1994); Life is Beautiful (1997); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Amour (2012). So, if Roma was to win Best Picture it would make genuine Oscar history!
Roma is the brainchild of writer and director Alfonso Cuaron, and is described by Netflix as Cuaron’s way of ‘’delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him.” It is, in fact, the story of his childhood in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, with a particular emphasis on the role of a much loved domestic servant in their household (Cleo). It has all the nostalgia that you would expect from someone looking back fondly on their own life, and this sense of the past is undoubtedly helped by the beautifully authentic sets and the sweeping and masterful photography. Despite this, I am convinced that it would have been
However, what else does Roma offer in addition to beautiful cinematography? The story is a fairly straightforward tale of a year or so in the domestic life of a middle class family in Mexico in the 1970s. There is a divorce, a betrayal, a lost baby, political protests, a holiday and a new beginning, as well as the mundanities of everyday living. On the plus side, it feels authentic and relatively unvarnished. The father figure is genuinely unpleasant, and it features the most annoying incontinent barking dogs ever to appear on screen! The movie has two strong female lead characters, who were obviously the formative influences in Cuaron’s life – the mother (played by Marina de Trevira) and the servant (played by Yalitza Aparicio). In real life, Yalitza Aparicio is a pre-school teacher from Oaxaca, not an actress, and was selected by Cuaron after a year of searching because she looked exactly like the person from his childhood. The film is in Spanish and Mixteco, reflecting the reality of the character that Yalitza is playing. Her quiet, still and restrained performance belies her total lack of acting experience or training, and makes her achievement in being nominated for Best Actress even more astonishing. If she were to win (which is unlikely, given that her competition includes Olivia Coleman and Glenn Close) then she would be the first indigenous woman to win an Oscar. Marina De Travira’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress was much more of a shock. Whilst her delivery in the film is without reproach, it did not seem to stand out as a world class performance. For example, does it really stand above Emily Blunt’s stunning performance in A Quiet Place, which was sadly left out of the Oscar reckoning altogether?
Regardless of whether or not Roma gets Best Picture, there is a strong possibility that Alfonso Cuaron will be a top contender for Best Director or for Best Screenplay. He has an interesting and varied back catalogue, stretching from much-loved family films (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and A Little Princess) to Oscar nominated films such as Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men, before eventually winning his first 2 Oscars in 2014 for the fabulous sci fi film Gravity. Cuaron is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, but the competition is tough and – for me – this year belongs to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
So, in summary, whilst Roma is interesting and very lyrical to watch, it is also long and rather slow, and – at times – it seems to have little sense of drive and purpose. It is hard to reconcile the reality of watching Roma with the incredible hype surrounding the film.