Do you need to see Roma in the theater?
Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s quiet, contemplative, deeply personal film, based on the experiences of the woman who worked for his family and raised him in Mexico City and set during a time of social unrest, has already received plaudits from critics’ groups all over North America. It’s earned Best Picture nods from groups in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, among others. It opened in theaters for a few weeks, and on December 14, it hit Netflix while expanding to 600 theaters in more than 40 countries.
So since it’s in your Netflix account now, do you have to see it in a theater to really enjoy it?
Short answer: Of course not.
Longer answer: If you can — if it’s in a theater near you, and you have the means — then you absolutely should.
Roma was shot in a format that enhanced its visual aspects in particular
Initially, Roma was slated to be released on Netflix, and in a handful of theaters on the same day, all on December 14. But following the film’s rapturous reception during the fall festival season, Netflix decided to release it on screens for three weekends prior to its “official” release date and expand its theatrical release, which includes playing on 100 screens in the US.
Netflix doesn’t do this for all of its movies. So why Roma? And why should audiences care?
Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winning director of Roma, planned to shoot the film with his frequent collaborator (and childhood friend) Emmanuel Lubezki. The pair have collaborated on most of Cuarón’s films, including 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, 2006’s Children of Men, and 2013’s Gravity. Cuarón even prepped the film with Lubezki in mind.
Roma is about Cleo, a woman who works for a doctor’s family in Mexico City in the 1970s. But Cleo’s story happens against the backdrop of social and political unrest in Mexico, and some of the scenes are staggering in how carefully and extensively they show the texture and complexity of that time, from arson at a wealthy family’s home to protests and riots in the streets.
In the end, Lubezki’s schedule didn’t line up, and Cuarón shot the film himself — a first for the director. He used an Alexa65 digital camera, which creates an image that includes the same kind of detail and visual information that would come with shooting on 65mm film (and translates, for boring technical reasons, to 70mm projection in the theater).
He’d like you to see it in a theater, by the way.
The richness of an image shot on this format is hard to match, and hard to explain; the closest comparison I can think of is that it’s the difference between listening to a cassette recording of a symphony and high-definition audio.
If you’re interested in the technical details, you can read Vox’s explainers on projection and on film vs. digital — both of which reveal fascinating things about how technological advances have changed the way we watch movies. The way you see the film can have a direct effect on your experience of the film, something that many audiences experienced, for instance, during Dunkirk’s theatrical run in summer 2017.
But Roma’s release is a little different from Dunkirk’s. When people were asking about which format of Dunkirk they should see, they were asking about formats in the theater. But Roma poses a different question: Should I see it on the big screen or watch it on Netflix — maybe even on my phone?
Seeing a movie like Roma on a screen larger than you makes it immersive
The first thing to know about Roma is that its images matter tremendously to your viewing experience, perhaps more than your average plot-driven Hollywood film.
Plenty happens in Cuarón’s film, but instead of leaning on plot and action to move the story along, he chose to lean back into the images, inviting the audience to engage with intimate but lushly constructed domestic vignettes, carefully framed street scenes, and, at times, vast landscapes. You’ll want to see as much of what’s in the background as you can.
You can, of course, get all this by looking closely at your TV or laptop screen, or squinting at your phone. (In fact, Ted Sarandos, the CCO of Netflix — who is probably not a neutral voice in this debate — suggested recently that your phone is just fine for Roma.)
But unless you’re a freak of nature, you just won’t be seeing exactly the same detail and richness on any of those devices that you would on the big screen.
The slow, immersive nature of Roma works better in a controlled environment
Another compelling reason has to do with the rhythm and experience of watching Roma. It is a quiet, slow, immersive film, one that doesn’t try very hard to grab you and pull you into the action. Much of the film consists of watching Cleo and the family she works for go about their very ordinary business. This is the sort of film in which the first few minutes are just a long, slow shot of water being brushed across a cobblestone driveway by a broom.
The theatrical experience can greatly enhance your encounter with art like this. One reason is that you’re dwarfed by the screen and immersed in the film, rather than being the master of it. You can’t pause it and get up and grab another beer from the fridge or take a call, and in a good theater you can’t whip out your phone at the boring bits. You have to take it on its own terms, rather than yours.
I spend a lot of time in movie theaters, so I know that this is the ideal more than the reality. And maybe your local theater is populated by moviegoers who are happy to take out their phones and text their friends or talk during a film. (I’m sorry.) If so, maybe seeing the movie in your living room would be a more immersive experience than hauling yourself off to the theater.
But with a movie like Roma, you may want to risk it. Being in an enclosed space with a slow movie — and one that requires you, unless you’re fluent in both Spanish and Mixtec, to read subtitles — has a way of forcing you to slow down and pay attention. Whether you find the experience ultimately fulfilling depends on what you bring to it. But it’s worth at least giving it a chance to blow your mind.
Can you skip the theatrical experience and still “see” Roma? Of course! Part of the upside of the film being on Netflix so soon is that it’s widely available to audiences who might not have access to the kind of theater that would show a film like this: in black and white, in Spanish, without any famous Hollywood movie stars. And anyone, anywhere, can pay careful attention to a film and experience it as a work of art.
And yet, just as you can look at a reproduction of a painting and study it, but feel something entirely different when you see it in the Louvre, seeing Roma in the theater feels like seeing it in the way that most closely matches its ideal state. It’s worth trying to see it in a theater, if you can. What happens after that is up to you.