Column: Oscar-nominated Mexican drama “Roma” breaks barriers and sparks debate
At a time when public discourse in the US has been dominated by talk of walls, it’s ironic that a Mexican film has been knocking down figurative barriers all along its journey to this Sunday’s Oscar Awards.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black-and-white, Spanish-language film about a middle-class family and their live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City, has shattered multiple glass ceilings – or, perhaps more aptly put for a Netflix-backed film, screens.
It’s nominated in a whopping 10 Oscar categories, matched this year only by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist costume drama The Favourite.
The inclusion of these two non-American directors and their arguably non-Hollywood films in top categories is already newsworthy. Roma star Yalitza Aparicio is also the first actor of indigenous heritage nominated for a best actress Oscar, and only the second Mexican.
Roma has the potential to become the first non-English language movie ever to win the best film Oscar, and could take home both best film and best foreign-language film prizes.
Other international works this year have also broken out of the foreign-language “ghetto,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it, like Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s 3-category nominee Cold War.
As these boundaries evaporate in the global film industry, will the foreign-language Oscar category even make sense?
The Netflix Debate
In light of the success of Roma – including top prizes at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Globes and the British BAFTAS, among others – debate about the role of Netflix in the film business has intensified.
“A vote for ‘Roma’ is, on some level, a vote for Netflix, and some may not want to cast that vote,” one Variety columnist noted about the Oscars. Netflix sure wants to win: It’s reportedly outspent everyone and surpassed the film’s own budget on its Oscar campaign.
At issue is more collapsing of walls – or in this case, “windows,” the term used for the traditional schedule of releasing films in theaters before streaming or TV.
Roma had a theatrical release in select countries three weeks prior to its December Netflix premiere – in part to make it eligible for festivals and awards, which are under pressure to maintain the integrity of traditional windows. But other theaters refused to show the film with only three weeks of exclusivity.
“Remember the ’90s, in which the big studio movie was coexisting in the multiplex with the foreign film and the film from Sundance? That’s the healthiest way of cinema,” Cuarón mused in an interview with Variety.
“What these new options are providing,” the director told Deadline, “is more diversity of content. Diversity in storytelling, diversity in characters, diversity in countries, diversity in languages, but also diversity in the way in which you see films.”
Cuarón’s view is supported by the buzz “Roma” has generated globally. If you haven’t seen the film, chances are you know people who have. When was the last time you could say that about a Mexican or foreign-language movie?
Netflix is to thank for that reach, but so is the grassroots reaction that’s arisen organically on social media and around the world, especially Mexico. “I was mesmerized by how accurately the movie portrays my home country’s past and, in many ways, its present cultural and political landscape,” Ana Karina Zatarain wrote in an opinion piece on hyperallergic.com.
Watch videos of Cuarón walking around the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up and shot this film, and see people thanking him and crying over the memories he elicited with Roma, inspired by his own childhood and beloved live-in maid/nanny.
A point of national pride, Roma marked the director’s return to Mexico after Hollywood films like Gravity and Children of Men.
The movie has pushed the topic of the treatment of indigenous workers to the fore, bringing some stubborn racism to the light of day as well. It’s also been praised by awestruck critics as a “masterpiece,” “impeccable,” “an instant classic.”
A few reviewers have been less fawning.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody captures a theme among them – that Cuarón, as both director and cinematographer on Roma, prioritized style (see the film’s “silky, digital black and white palette” and meticulous staging) over substance (the lack of dialogue and thin development of Cleo, the protagonist maid).
If you’ve seen the film, you may have had the sense you were watching Cleo from the outside, rather than identifying with how she felt or thought. The slow pace and painstakingly handsome framing may have contributed to that sense of detachment, or even disinterest.
There was surely much intentionality here on Cuarón’s part, but for Brody and others, Cleo is limited to a “bland and blank trope” of the silent, stoic, noble worker – a comfortable yet undemanding viewpoint for well-meaning “intellectual filmmakers” and their “art-house audiences.”
We’ll find out where the Academy stands on these debates Sunday.
This article originally ran in the Daily Record. Click on the photo below to access it.