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Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a movie that should evoke our thoughts not only because it was awarded with Golden Lion in Venice (and a number of other awards, warm critical reception, etc.), but also because it is one of the experimental moments for the distribution market not only in Poland. Roma simultaneously enters the movie theaters and appears on Netflix. What does this mean for us?

First of all, it brings back all the discussions about the future of cinema. How wrong you can be on the predictions about the development of this medium, shows the example of James Cameron’s Avatar. The new, digitally improved 3D cinema, much more convenient for the viewer and having an ever greater depth of image, was to mark a new era for the cinema, slowly replacing “flat” movies. Almost a decade later, digital 3D technology stands at a similar point as then, providing a tool that from time to time will give entertainment or space for experimenters (e.g. Wim Wenders’ Pina or Gaspar Noé’s Love). The foundations of cinema did not shake, it is still alive and well.

This time the problem is a bit different and it does not concern film technology, but method of distribution. However, the reactions are very similar. Will – assuming a similar offer as in the case of Roma – streaming platforms eat the sunday cinema viewer, who puts the comfort and privacy of their home above everything else? Common sense suggests that one will have to wait patiently for a cultural change, i.e. the emergence and promotion of a new way of experiencing cinema. For now, the cinema bravely competes with the small screen, still having the status of something more special than a home evening screening (one does not have to mention the festivals and their growing popularity, just think about going out to the cinema with friends, which does not happen so often). What is hard to find on streaming platforms is artistic cinema.

Secondly, what is Roma then, grown out of the festival cinema (turning a blind eye to director’s loud name)? One cannot deny this film’s aesthetic value. Whether we agree with the Venice’s jury or not, general positive acclaim cannot be ignored. Perhaps Netflix, struggling with the problem of rapidly growing competition, trying to acquire a broader target, unknowingly fulfills the dream of a cinema maker with a wide availability of cinema with a slightly higher status. What will the effect of this experiment be and in what direction will it all go – we will probably find this out in the upcoming months.

There are few words to say about the film itself. By entering a streaming platform that is used by many millions of users, Roma thus enters the mainstream. This is the case that tells us a lot about how mainstream cinema operates. The natural order of things is that every phenomenon must eventually become conventional. This is also the case with neomodernism and slow cinema. Some glimpses can already be seen in the films of Denis Vileneuve, who in his recent works likes to delight us with the wide, long-lasting frames. Cuarón provides an example that clearly emphasizes the mainstream’s acceptance of certain conventions. It is impossible to resist the impression that the work of one of the leading neomodernists in the world, Lav Diaz from the Philippines, has become a direct inspiration for Roma. The aesthetics and narrative, in which poetic magical realism and political background are mixed, are so similar for both artists that one can be tempted to say that the Mexican-born director has created a creative copy of his colleague’s work.

Although festival audience knows Diaz very well, ordinary viewers, even those very interested in cinema and wanting to broaden their horizons, will have a big problem getting to this artist’s movies. It’s not just about availability, but also about time. Hardly anyone can afford an 8-hour screening. That is a length of, for example, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery by Diaz, who likes making very long films. In this sense, Roma is a shortcut (two hours is a short film by the Filipino’s measures) that will allow a wider audience to come across something new.

Cuarón dowers his character with a similar chill you can feel watching this deftly and clearly staged, but raw, black and white image. The main heroine, Cleo, serving in a villa owned by bourgeois couple, becomes a living receiver not only of the private tragedy, but also of the historical background, turmoil of the 70s in Mexico. Although the camera will follow Cleo with painful indifference, it is the heroine who will be the center of attention and compassion for the viewer, becoming a living metaphor for political and social changes. Just like in Diaz’s Woman Who Left, what is happening next to the wandering figure is also important. The creators wanted to portray something very difficult – highly personal, collective experience of an unequal society that feels a social crisis, although it cannot find a common language. It is quite naïve to compare the maid and her employer, whose problems are universalized and equalized, despite a clear difference in status.

For fans of Filipino cinema, Mexico City will blend with the streets of Manila, and chiaroscuro on the faces of the characters will emphasize not only internal tension, but also the threat of gloomy political realities, as well as the hard contemporary times. Roma is a movie calculated for a larger audience, but it can be accepted as a kind of introduction to the genre for those interested. Is this exception to the rule and the streaming platform experiment, which may not happen again, an announcement of a new strategy that will open festivals for those whom the cinema bypasses for various reasons? The answer will be brought bring by a key dimension for neomodernists – time.

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Mateusz Tarwacki

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Laura Przybylska
Laura Przybylska