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Alan Charlton

Netflix breaks cinema boundaries with Roma

Voices Jan. 21, 2019

Alan Charlton asks whether Roma, with its simple story of a maid and her relationship with the upper middle-class family she works for, represents another threat to movie theatres since it’s only available on Netflix. (Netflix image)

The movie industry has been able to survive for a century despite threats from technological change, such as the arrival of television with all the advances made in that particular medium.

Despite (or because) of these developments, millions of people still flock to their local cinema each year. However, a more recent development in the industry represents a threat movie theatres may not be able to survive: movies can now be streamed to one’s television set.

Considering how such sets have grown in size, while technology has made it possible to more closely approximate the theatre experience in the home, one wonders how long it will be before going out to the movies will seem as outdated as people staying at home and gathering for a sing-along round the piano.

Of course, nothing can quite replace the experience of watching a film in the company of hundreds of strangers, and one wonders if the attraction of huge screens for showing “epic” films will ever result in movie theatres disappearing completely – but look what happened to drive-in theatres!

All of this is brought into sharp focus by the fact that the movie Roma is essentially available for viewing only on home screens.

When Netflix bought the screening rights of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, it soon became clear that opportunities to view the film at a theatre would be limited. At the moment, Roma is not being screened at any local Cineplex theatres, though it did recently enjoy a short run, with one screening per day, at the Scotiabank Theatre.

This is a pity as the film has received wide critical acclaim, including the Golden Globe award for best foreign picture. (It couldn’t be awarded the best film award as films not in English are disqualified from this category.) In fact, Roma is, in my opinion, the best film of 2018.

Cuaron’s Roma (the title refers to a district of Mexico City, the locale of the film) tells a simple story of the life of a woman, Cleo, who works as a maid for an upper middle-class family. The family represents a microcosm of society as its members attempt to deal with the issues of everyday life.

Cleo, unmarried, becomes pregnant as the result of a liaison with her boyfriend. (Warning: full frontal male nudity occupies one minute of the running time.) The father of the family ostensibly leaves for a business conference in Quebec, though in reality he has joined his mistress in Acapulco.

However, dramatic as these events may appear, the film shows the household stoically dealing with them and continuing with their unremarkable lives. While Cuaron may be making a gently feminist film in that the men are not depicted favourably, he is also concerned with other themes, especially the heroism that millions of ordinary people display each day as they dutifully go about their lives and, above all, the healing power of love.

In doing this, Cuaron has created a film that is not only thematically impressive, but also visually remarkable. He holds his camera still while the characters move through the scene, depicting the imprisonment of their situation. He moves the camera with his characters in the moments that they can temporarily escape from their humdrum lives by going to the cinema. He employs visual symbols: a plane flying overhead, a marching band passing the house, people watching a movie in a theatre as ongoing reminders of the possibilities that exist in life, but which will never be part of Cleo’s.

At times the symbolism is used humourously, as with the family dog, Borras, who continually tries to escape the confines of the home but dirties it with his droppings.

When the father returns home with an impressive car, it is clear that the entryway is confining and indictive of his wish to get away from his family; later his wife damages the car when she is outside. In a climactic scene, the perils that face the family should they try to reach for something more are illustrated when the children go out too far into the ocean while on vacation at a beach.

Yet, while the film underscores the characters’ entrapment, it is by no means pessimistic. The loving and accepting relationship between the characters, the women and the children, above all allows them to live their quiet lives with dignity, with honour, and with happiness.

In a very real way, the film reminds me of the paintings of Chardin as it emphasizes the beauty of the mundane. Like Chardin’s painting of pots, cutlery and food, Cuaron shows we need to see the beauty in the everyday and teaches us to have reverence for the wonder of the ordinary.

It’s too bad that at the moment the film is available only on Netflix, though I rather think that after the Oscar nominations have been announced, the priorities of business will see it released in cinemas – after all, box-office numbers are not likely to be ignored.

Meanwhile, I hope you can view Roma on your own or your friend’s television set, which is what I, who do not subscribe to Netflix, did.  After all, we may have to get used to it.