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Roma would be an unusual Best Picture winner. Here’s why it deserves the honor.

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal family drama, set in Mexico City.

Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina De Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, and Carlos Peralta Jacobson in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
The movie Roma has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.
Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whatever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the KKK, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about Roma, the highly lauded black-and-white drama from Mexican director (and previous Oscar winner) Alfonso Cuarón. Joining the conversation are Alissa Wilkinson, Vox’s film critic; Eliza Barclay, senior editor for health and science at Vox; Nisha Chittal, Vox’s audience engagement editor; and Tim Williams, copy editor.

Why Roma captivated us

Alissa Wilkinson: More than any of the other films nominated for Best Picture this year, Roma is the critical darling. It won awards from major critics’ groups and nearly universal plaudits, which have helped with its status as a frontrunner for the Best Picture trophy. It’s also tied with The Favourite for the most Oscar nominations in 2019; its 10 nominations include nods for directing and cinematography for its director, Alfonso Cuarón, who won the latter category for his direction of Gravity in 2014.

Yet, it’s honestly a bit of an oddball, as Best Picture contenders go. It’s in black and white. It’s in Spanish and the indigenous language Mixtec, with English subtitles (at least if you’re watching it in the US). It doesn’t have any recognizable movie stars to most audiences (its star Yalitza Aparicio, who’s up for Best Actress, had never acted before the movie). Set in 1970, it’s the story of a young woman who works for a middle-class family in Mexico City during a time of political unrest. It’s the kind of slow, contemplative film that typically has a small release in specialty theaters.

But Roma differs from other films of its sort in one huge way: It was distributed by streaming giant Netflix, which means that although it was ultimately released theatrically, it was also available to people all over the world to watch on their TVs and computers and even their phones (a level of access and convenience that Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos suggested people would love). It’s Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee. And if it wins, it will be a huge deal not just for Netflix, but for the film industry.

So I’m wondering: How did you first see Roma? What did you think of the movie? And what about it do you think makes it a Best Picture contender?

Tim Williams: America is doing movie theaters totally wrong. This is my obnoxious opinion after seeing Roma in Mexico City (where it was filmed) in an alarmingly beautiful cinema plaza. Look at these pictures!

Movie theaters can certainly survive by selling ever-more-expensive fancy food ferried to you by bent-over servers in the dark. But wouldn’t it be great to make them communal spaces again instead?

The pageantry of going to the movies is obviously a big part of Roma (and we all know the Oscars love a movie about movies), with several key scenes — including the one where Cleo tells her boyfriend Fermin about her pregnancy — occurring in or just outside of movie theaters. But it’s a lot more than that, obviously.

A scene from Roma
A scene from Roma.

Which was somewhat lost on me because I saw it the first time without subtitles, despite speaking almost no Spanish.

I was sort of hoping a handsome stranger would whisper translations in my ear, but it was still a magical way to experience the movie. Another reason I think Roma has had such success at the Oscars is the immediacy of its images — what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” (To describe his own movies!) It’s a foreign film, but the dialogue is often added color, not the thrust of the storytelling.

I was astounded, watching the opening credits, to see that there is a full minute of the camera fixed on gray tile — before the tide of the morning suds washes over the screen. It’s stunning, like so many images in the movie, but it also tells so much about the place and characters, without dialogue.

Nisha Chittal: I watched it on Netflix! Honestly that was part of the appeal, that it was so much more easily accessible. Seeing movies in theaters is so expensive — it’s like $17 a ticket in New York City, which means it costs more to see one movie in a theater than an entire month of Netflix.

I loved it. The story was so moving, the cinematography and directing were so well done —the way Cuarón filmed the scenes around the house where Cleo worked was just fascinating to watch. So much of the film focuses on the sort of small, mundane things that make up everyday household/family life, yet it was still so interesting and compelling to watch. Yalitza Aparicio was so wonderful!

Eliza Barclay: I saw Roma in the theater (having read Alissa’s recommendation to see it there). The film was a very poignant experience on a few levels.

First, I lived in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City (a.k.a. Distrito Federal, or DF) for three years, from 2004 to 2007, working there as a freelance foreign correspondent, and there were so many atmospheric details about street vendors in Roma in the film that mapped perfectly on my memory.

For instance, the camote (sweet potato) vendor who rattles along the streets pushing his small cart and advertising his presence with a sorrowful high-pitched whistle. This is one of those distinctive DF sounds still present today that you come to know, and it was a tradition I found bizarre until I just accepted it. And it delighted me to see it in the film.

Another scene that was just so spot-on was when Cleo emerges from the movie theater looking for her date who has abandoned her, and is confronted with a bunch of garish vendors selling whimsies. To be a pedestrian in DF is to be regularly overwhelmed by street vendors hawking all manner of things you don’t need in that moment. It also means, though, that the street life there is unparalleled in its activity and its entrepreneurial creativity.

I could name so many other scenes that were so deeply, authentically DF, and that captured a distinct strain of fearlessness running through the people there — the scene at the country retreat with the fires, with kids and adults pitching in to put out flames, creating no doubt significant anxiety for risk-averse American viewers ...

But on another level of poignancy, I just found the tenderness, intimacy, and gentleness of the relationship between Cleo and the kids to be absolutely extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a film before. The love, the kindness, and the best of human nature were captured and conveyed in the way that she cared for them, and the way that they loved her back.

That authentic emotion to me is the core of what makes Roma a Best Picture contender.

How Roma’s backdrop of political unrest works with its story

Alissa: I think what you’re all getting at well is that this is a really emotional film to watch for a lot of people. Which is startling, when you think about it — it’s slow, and set in a different time and place, and the black and white in particular really sets it apart from “reality,” in a way. Something you all pointed out is how the small details of the setting, the household, the sounds, the street vendors all build the world that Cleo lives in, without having to do a lot of over-explaining for those who are less familiar.

I’m wondering how the details of domestic life work for you against the backdrop of what’s happening in the film. Roma is about Cleo’s life with the family she works for, but while that’s happening there is serious political and social unrest occurring as well. The film is purposefully set in 1970 and 1971, when land grabs and revolts were happening in Mexico. The film’s pivotal scene, when Cleo’s water breaks in a furniture store, happens in the midst of the Corpus Christi massacre, in which student demonstrators were attacked by a shock group trained by the government.

Where should you see Roma?
A scene from Roma.

When I talked to Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, she noted that all of this history is very present for her and her indigenous community, especially when it’s been echoed more recently in incidents like the 2014 “disappearance” of activist students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. And the Domestic Workers’ Union has been out promoting the film as a vital look into domestic workers’ lives, not just in the past but today.

Were you thinking about any of this watching the film? How do you think the small domestic drama works against Roma’s bigger backdrop? And is there anything about the film that adds to this larger story?

Tim: The workers’ union has rightly seized on the movie to amplify its message. But I wonder if this film is really the best possible vehicle. Cuarón’s film is a sort of love letter to his childhood housekeeper, and the love shows clearly, especially in the relationship between one of her charges, the precocious dreamer Paco, and Cleo. Her work is given dignity, and she has a rich inner life outside it.

And this relationship is not uncomplicated. Cleo briefly joins a family gathering around the TV and is even invited to curl up next to one of the boys. But then she is quickly sent to fetch tea, and this separation repeats throughout the film. Still, Cleo is a member of the family — its backbone, really. In the film’s wide panning shots, she’s often kept at the center as the family enacts their drama about the house on the outskirts.

But it’s clear that Cleo’s situation is not quite typical. It’s unlikely that another home would instantly show support when a maid reveals a pregnancy. Roma is a film in which political forces intercede on the domestic, but class war at home is repressed.

What would a less rosy picture of domestic workers’ lives look like? I think the answer is in Guie’dani’s Navel, another 2018 film about an Oaxacan maid that otherwise couldn’t be less aligned with Cuarón’s vision.

In that film, Zapotec Guie’dani, a modern-day teenager, joins her mother to work for a wealthy Mexico City family. It’s clear from the moment she steps into the home of their employer (which like in Roma has a grand entrance but functions to keep people out) that she will never become “one of them.” And she never wants to, refusing their clumsy gifts and offer to tutor her (to feel less guilty about using child labor).

The family is clearly uncomfortable with ordering Zapotec around but chooses to simply separate themselves as much as possible. In Roma, Cleo smoothly weaves her native dialect together with Spanish; in Guie’dani’s Navel, Zapotec is mocked for daring to speak her own language. We see little of Cleo’s room in Roma, but Guie’dani’s Navel doesn’t let us forget Zapotec’s bare closet. The airy, modern home has none of the wide panning shots of Cuarón’s film: This place is Zapotec’s prison, and the confinement leads to a violent climax.

Guie’dani’s Navel is carefully directed, and the amateur Oaxacan actors are every bit as riveting in their performances as Aparicio is in hers. It doesn’t have the scope or stunning images of Roma, but I think it’s a perfect counterpart to it.

But to get back to the actual film we’re discussing, I was interested in what people saw in the recurring images in the film. The water, the planes that pass over the film’s opening and ending (and drown out a very bizarre scene involving a muscle man/hippie guru). It seems like there’s something there with the international forces working on the city, but I’m not really sure what. This is the “problem” with a film as beautiful as Roma: Everything seems full of meaning.

Maybe it’s just a nod, like the camote men, to the quirks of the city.

Nisha: I’ll admit that I did not know a lot about the Corpus Christi Massacre before watching Roma, so I spent some time reading about it after watching the film. (This explainer was helpful.)

I think the political backdrop that the film’s story was set against was incredibly important to the story — it further highlighted the class divisions and tensions that were already bubbling in the city at the time.

Fermin, the man who briefly dates Cleo and gets her pregnant only to abandon her, is seen training to be part of “Los Halcones,” the secret paramilitary force that the Mexican government trained to fight against student activists. The scene where Cleo and her employer watch the massacre/protests at a distance from inside the furniture store while Cleo is going into labor — only to then be confronted by some of the Halcones, including Fermin himself — is haunting. We don’t learn too much about Fermin’s life and what got him into martial arts, and eventually into Los Halcones. And by all accounts, he’s not a good guy: He abandons his pregnant girlfriend, and he’s last seen brandishing a gun in front of innocent student activists.

A scene from Roma.
A village scene from Roma.

But we do see in some earlier scenes that he lives in relative poverty in a rural area outside the city, and I had to wonder whether those circumstances — desperation and poverty — are what drove him to get involved in Los Halcones.

Tim: Fermin is bad news from the moment he enters the picture: Why is he snatching one of the girls’ Coke? He’s also uninterested in following through on plans to go the movies; he has Cleo to impress with his much less frivolous martial arts (which at first Cuarón seems to lavish attention on, but in the later scenes are shown to be a farce).

He’s clearly a kid wrapped up in a twisted ideology; he tries to say the right things to Cleo when she breaks the news of her pregnancy, then wanders off because the lies he’s been told about self-sufficiency are much more comforting. Antonio — Roma’s other male figure — also gets away with such thinking, though less extreme. The women don’t have that luxury; the children occupy all their time.

Eliza: During the scene where Cleo’s water broke, I was definitely thinking about the general pattern of violent repression of student groups happening in many countries around the time of Corpus Christi. I thought the chaos of that scene — and the chaos of the following scene in the hospital — was so powerful, with the way the camera lingered and encompassed these very uncomfortable moments of suffering. There are wide, wide images, giving us no escape from the pain of a woman whose boyfriend is shot, the pain of Cleo losing her baby with the doctors trying furiously to save her.

The scene where Fermin rejects Cleo to her face also brought out the theme of intense racism and economic subjugation — especially of indigenous groups like the Mixtec — in Mexico that persists today.

And yet somehow there’s also some mystery in Cleo’s sense of self; we never quite know how personally she takes the rejection, how much she feels shame about being a domestic worker or not. And of course Roma’s ending offers some equalizing healing, in what she is able to do for the children and the mother.

What could Roma’s success mean for Netflix, and for filmmakers?

Alissa: The film itself ran into a few snags related to the social context of our time, too. The news recently broke that Jorge Antonio Guerrero, the Mexican actor who plays Fermin in the film, will be able to attend the Oscars ceremony after all, after being shut out of the US during most of the Oscar campaign period due to repeated denials of his visa.

And, even more strikingly, Yalitza Aparicio, who is an indigenous woman and nominated for playing Cleo, was the subject of apparently racially motivated rumblings among some Mexican actresses to keep her out of contention for various awards and racist attacks online after landing on the cover of Vogue Mexico.

But I think the film has a fighting chance at winning a lot of Oscars this year, even if it doesn’t land Best Picture, and that’s a coup for everyone involved, including Netflix. If it does win, it will mean a lot for films like Roma, and might even prompt Netflix to invest in similar projects in the future.

So my question to you all is: What one place or historical setting would you love to see Netflix invest its film production dollars in?

Best Supporting Actress-nominated Marina De Tavira having her picture taken by cordoned-off photographers in front of a wall decorated with the words “Roma” and “Netflix.”
Best Supporting Actress-nominated Marina De Tavira attends the Netflix Roma Premiere at the Egyptian Theatre on December 10, 2018, in Hollywood, California.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

Tim: Ads for Roma (and other Spanish-language Netflix-produced shows) were everywhere when I was in Mexico City. Netflix clearly sees these projects as a way to take over every screen on Earth. Hopefully the company will continue to support interesting films in Mexico and not just charge into the next market, colonial-style.

But if for some reason Bulgaria is next, Netflix should throw some money at Tonislav Hristov. His 2016 documentary The Good Postman localizes the Syrian refugee crisis in a tiny Bulgarian town. It’s surreal, captivating, and I’d love to see what he tackles next.

Eliza: Gosh, this is a hard question. But I’d love to see more films set in Tibet!

More specifically, films about the spread of Buddhism out of India, into countries like Tibet and China.

Nisha: This is a tough question! I loved Netflix’s Sacred Games (not a film, but a TV series) which was filmed in India and starred Indian actors and was just incredibly well done. I’d love to see Netflix do more perhaps in Southeast Asia — a region of the world that I think deserves more coverage.

When Crazy Rich Asians came out last summer, many people pointed out that the film focused on Singapore’s Chinese population; other ethnic groups that live in Singapore — Malaysians, Indians, and others — were not represented onscreen. I’d love to see Netflix invest in more stories from Southeast Asian countries that have historically been underrepresented, like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia.

Alissa: Netflix has the ability (and maybe the interest) to invest in filmmakers who hail from those countries, too, which would be in stark contrast to most Hollywood studios’ practices. There’s more than one way to be a disruptor, and Roma — and the attention paid to it by the Oscars — proves that, whether or not it wins Best Picture. Maybe change really is afoot.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice