A Cleaner Sweep
Nothing lasts forever. Netflix has risen to ubiquity in the last few years due to an effective two-pronged strategy: lavishly-produced brand new material you can't see anywhere else, and licensed old favourites from many other places you'd really like to watch again. The enormous success of this approach has taken traditional media providers by surprise, catching them flat-footed, but state of affairs will not endure. Disney are due to launch their own streaming service within the year, which means a sizeable tranche of popular movies and TV shows will vanish from Netflix and move onto the rival (this will include all the Marvel and stellar conflict movies); other providers will likely follow suit, taking their own archive content with them.
So it is very likely that Netflix will become increasingly dependent on its self-generated content in order to stay successful. Here the service's 'here and nowhere else' policy may actually count against it, especially when it comes to less-commercial movies. Your typical arthouse or quality movie release is often dependent on reviews and awards success in order to find or attract an audience, and most awards-giving bodies have been very clear that a Netflix-only release does not qualify a film for the big name prizes – it has to play in actual cinemas if it wants to get nominated.
For a long time Netflix held the line and refused to compromise when it came to putting their original movies into cinemas – to do so would be to defeat the whole point of being a streaming-only site. However, recently they seem to have cracked, putting Alfonso Cuaron's Roma on at film festivals and into actual movie theatres. This appears to have paid off in spades, for in addition to most likely being the best-performing subtitled movie in years (Netflix is coy about these things), Roma has managed to displace The Favourite as the favourite for this year's most prestigious awards.
The film is mostly set in Mexico City, nearly fifty years ago, and concerns the life of a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who is the live-in cleaner, child-minder and general domestic help for a wealthy family in the wealthy suburb of Colonia Roma. The couple are experiencing marital difficulties; their four children are loud, demanding, and (I found) rather annoying. Cleo has a lot on her plate nearly all the time.
For a while this looks like it's going to be one of those slice-of-life movies where nothing much actually happens worth mentioning, but then Cleo discovers that her new boyfriend, the martial-arts-obsessed Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), has managed to get her pregnant. His response when told of this is to vanish from the scene quicker than you can say 'Come home, Speedy Gonzales!' Meanwhile, her employers' marriage disintegrates, the husband moving out and leaving his wife (Marina de Tavira) to cope alone, while trying to keep the truth from the children.
You know me, I'm not especially cynical (quiet at the back!), but while watching Roma it did occur to me that if you wanted to make a movie that was custom-built to become a critical darling and Oscar bait, the end result might very well end up looking rather like this one.
For one thing, it is made in pristine, luminous black and white, which is a choice that directors make for one of two reasons: either as a sort of visual shorthand to indicate that a film is set way back in the past, or because they're interested in the aesthetics of a film, rather than its narrative qualities. This movie is not set so long ago that black and white feels like the natural way to go (indeed at one point the characters go and see the colour movie Marooned – perhaps a playful tip of the hat, coming from the director of Gravity), so I'm guessing it is at least partly a visual thing. Certainly the film always looks beautiful even when the things appearing on the screen probably shouldn't.
Also stirred into the mix for this spicy favour-currying curry is the fact that despite the cinematic artifice of the film's presentation, the story it depicts is resolutely naturalistic and down to earth. There's inevitably a whiff of socially-aware film-making going on here, which is of course a long and estimable tradition within 'serious' film-making. The lives of the different strata of Mexican society are presented, and the various injustices and issues within that society are obliquely addressed.
Although it has to be said that this is not a film which feels especially inclined to dive in and get its hands dirty, or anything like that. Roma is not one of those movies where the director's art vanishes behind the story – Cuaron is clearly at work throughout. Quite apart from the choice of the film's aesthetic, he opts for quite a formal approach, with many scenes composed of very long takes, mostly in long shot, with the camera panning or tracking to follow a particular character as they move about. The very-long-take seems to be in fashion at the moment as a way for directors to show off (there's a particularly ostentatious example near the start of Outlaw King, another Netflix movie), but it does manage to feel less contrived here, even when the logistics of achieving some of the shots make them undeniably impressive.
You may be sensing that I am less swooningly in love with Roma than many proper film critics – well, it's a fair cop, guv'nor, I have to say that this is true. For the most part I did not find the story particularly immersive or especially engaging. The film is so self-consciously and obviously crafted as a work of art that the characters and their story almost feel secondary to anything else – it looks beautiful, of course, but this is the beauty of a painting or sculpture, intended to be viewed holistically, rather than that of a really great narrative.
The one exception to this is a sequence towards the end of the film involving a hospital visit, which is genuinely tough-to-watch, emotionally wrenching stuff – not just because of what happens, but also because of the general sense of the viewpoint character being treated with a total lack of empathy or consideration. Perhaps this is what the film is about, at its heart: Cleo and her employers live together, and all have their own personal problems to deal with, and while to their credit they do seem to have some concern for her, she is not quite a member of the family – if anything, she is treated like a much-loved pet, and most of the time they remain preoccupied with their own concerns.
As I say, though, if there is a particular message that Alfonso Cuaron would like Roma to deliver, then it does not feel like the film's only, or even primary concern. This is a beautiful film, skilfully crafted, with solidly naturalistic performances, and a deeply humane sensibility. It feels precision crafted to be an awards contender, and perhaps that's the problem with it: it feels perhaps just a little bit too calculated. Nevertheless, I expect it will continue to do very well for the remainder of the awards season – I'm not sure it would get my vote, though.
'All right then, what would you vote for?'
Ah, glad you asked. Time for the annual game of 'guess the Oscar results'... (It's at times like this I regret missing BlacKkKlansman, as it's the only major contender that slipped past me...)
Best Documentary: Must surely go to Free Solo, although I can imagine the academy wanting to signal its virtue by giving it to RBG, a documentary much less remarkable than its subject.
Best Animated Feature: Should and will go to Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse.
Best Supporting Actress: Should go to Rachel Weisz. Will go to Regina King.
Best Supporting Actor: Should and will go to Mahershala Ali.
Best Actress: Should and will go to Glenn Close.
Best Actor: Should go to Viggo Mortensen. Will go to Christian Bale (though this is a really tough one to call and I expect to be wrong).
Best Director: Should go to Yorgos Lanthimos. Will go to Alfonso Cuaron.
Best Picture: Should go to Vice. Will go to Roma..