“Roma,” the odds-on Oscar favorite for best foreign language film — if not the overall best picture — counters current commercial, cultural and political trends.
Commercially, the film’s release in theaters comes just a week before it’s available on Netflix, reflecting an alternative distribution model from a company that’s increasingly seen for its artistic prestige as much as its marketing prowess.
In fact, Netflix was among the top studios represented in both the film and TV categories in the Golden Globe nominations announced Thursday. “Roma” received a best foreign language film nod. Oddly, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the Golden Globes, won’t consider foreign-language films for best picture.
But others without that quirk are quick with their praise: “Roma” roared ahead with a Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as a “Special Award” that was even above the American Film Institute’s overall movies of the year. And it was named 2018’s best film by the New York Film Critics Circle.
Moviegoers (or couch surfers, if they’re screening “Roma” on Netflix) will soon see why: It’s an intimate, introspective (nearly autobiographical, in fact) tale of growing up in the early 1970s in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood from Alfonso Cuarón, who directed, produced and wrote “Roma.”
Cuarón, who won a best director Academy Award for “Gravity,” goes from outer space to the inner space of the human experience with a subtle movie that’s more mood than manic action — at least compared to superhero or sequel cinema that dominates the box office. (Four of 2018’s top 10 are Marvel movies, and three are follow-up films of previous hits.)
Not that there isn’t drama in “Roma,” which focuses on the family of Sofia (Marina De Tavira), a middle-class mom, and her indigenous, domestic servant Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in a stunning acting debut). Both women face change and challenge as the men in their lives disappoint (and disappear).
“Roma’s” domestic drama plays against a national crisis, too, as student demonstrations are met with lethal force from uniformed and paramilitary forces in a tense depiction of the real-life Corpus Christi Massacre, an infamous slaughter of about 120 peaceful protesters. The film’s scene, seen through a furniture-store window as Cleo shops for a crib, is just one of the movie’s indelible images.
Modern-day Mexico faces its own violence, and even vigilantism, as some band together against cartels careening Mexico into lawlessness — something Andres Manuel López Obrador, who was sworn in as Mexico’s new president last weekend, pledges to address. (Notably, López Obrador has opened the presidential palace for a “Roma” screening this weekend.)
If “Roma” is in fact nominated for an Academy Award, it would challenge several other cultural assumptions of the modern movie industry, including the thought that foreign-language films are best reserved for that category. “Roma,” which is in Spanish as well as Mixtec, an indigenous Mexican language, would be only the 11th such film to get a best picture Oscar nod, and would be the first to win in the academy’s most prestigious category.
And, like “Schindler’s List” and “The Artist” before it, “Roma” would also be one of the few relatively recent Oscar nominees shot in black and white. The film’s characters, conversely, are colorful.
And they’re also depicted individually — a characterization that’s countercultural to the way Mexicans are all too often portrayed by American politicians and the news media covering these leaders.
Some of this is undoubtedly due to the way they’ve been described by President Donald Trump, beginning with his campaign launch, when he glided down a gilded escalator in Trump Tower and tarnished Mexicans by saying: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”
Actually, they usually are, in nearly every endeavor — especially filmmaking. In fact, as far as directors, Mexico is sending the world’s best.
Cuarón, after all, is already an Oscar winner and has had breakthrough success directing well-reviewed films like “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which was shot in and about Mexico, as well as cross-cultural films such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men” and “Great Expectations,” among others.
And if Cuarón wins another best director Oscar, he’d continue his country’s recent directing dynasty. Alejandro G. Inarrito won twice, for directing “Birdman” in 2014 and “The Revenant” in 2015, after Cuarón won in 2013 for “Gravity.” And 2017’s winner was Guillermo del Toro, who directed “The Shape of Water.”
Trump, in his infamous announcement speech, also slandered Mexicans as rapists and criminals, while allowing that “some, I assume, are good people.”
Such a warped framework of our neighbors and allies on our southern border might make some of the president’s policies easier, like using tear gas at the border (an Obama-era tactic, too), family separation, and challenging rules on asylum-seekers.
But it doesn’t make them right.
In fact, the president, as well as those complicit in Congress and in like-minded media who group people fleeing horrific violence as a “caravan” to be feared instead of individuals to be helped, should instead develop more humane policies to aid desperate Mexicans or Central Americans fleeing horrific violence.
More humanity in public policy doesn’t have to mean abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or not securing the border. But it does mean working with hemispheric partners to ameliorate the roots of regional instability that forces people — parents, mostly — to walk across countries in order to find some semblance of safety.
And it means that despite deep divisions, good people of both parties can forge bipartisan consensus on comprehensive immigration reform that doesn’t use “Dreamers” as a bargaining chip but instead recognizes them as the gift they are to this country.
“Roma” is not inherently a political film — it’s a personal one. Which makes it even more powerful — especially if it reminds viewers that the human condition is universal: People everywhere, regardless of social class, nationality or other factors, experience pain and joy and seek security, especially for their children.
To be sure, an art-house, Netflix-distributed, foreign-language, black-and-white/gray-area film won’t be a blockbuster.
But maybe in these divisive times, it should be.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.