Is Netflix’s heartbreaking ‘Roma’ the film to beat?

Is Netflix's heartbreaking 'Roma' the film to beat?

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix film, “Roma” follows the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the 70s.
USA TODAY

NEW YORK — “Roma” is one of the very best films you’re likely to see this year. But how far can it go in a jam-packed 2019 Oscar race

That’s the question awards prognosticators have been asking ever since the movie premiered at Venice International Film Festival in August, bringing audiences to their feet at Toronto and Telluride fests in weeks after, before landing at New York Film Festival this weekend. 

On paper, “Roma” has almost everything working against it: For starters, it’s a black-and-white, Spanish-language drama with English subtitles. The two-plus-hour film has no recognizable stars in the United States and charts a year in the life of a live-in maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a nonprofessional actor) working for an upper-middle-class family in 1970s Mexico. It will be released December 14 in select theaters and on Netflix, which until “Mudbound” and “Icarus” last year, has struggled to be taken seriously by Oscar voters. 

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But “Roma” has a silver bullet in Alfonso Cuaron, the visionary filmmaker behind 2013’s Oscar-winning “Gravity,” whose credits also include “Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Cuaron, 56, has long been beloved by critics and his industry peers, as one of Hollywood’s so-called “Three Amigos” with fellow Mexican directors Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Birdman”) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”). 

He’s described “Roma” as his most deeply personal film yet, developed from his own memories growing up in Mexico City and based on his childhood babysitter. 

“We were a family together,” Cuaron told reporters in Venice of the woman who inspired Cleo. “When you grow up with someone you love, you don’t discuss their identity. So for this film, I forced myself to see as this woman, a member of the lower classes, from the indigenous population. …This gave me a point of view I had never had before.”

“Roma” has been hailed as an “epic, personal masterpiece” and Cuaron’s “best film so far” by critics, with 98% positive reviews so far on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. The movie has been selected as Mexico’s foreign-language Oscar submission, with pundits from The Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire already predicting that “Roma” could be the rare movie to earn nominations in both the best picture and best foreign-language film categories. 

Netflix clearly feels confident in “Roma’s” awards prospects: Following its New York premiere Friday, they feted the film with a splashy after-party at iconic Central Park restaurant Tavern on the Green, where guests enjoyed mezcal cocktails and live music.

Festival-goers have also embraced the quietly devastating drama, with not a dry eye in the house by the end of its screening at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall Saturday afternoon, which was introduced by surprise guest del Toro in Cuaron’s absence. 

” ‘Roma’ is, for me, the culmination of Alfonso’s career so far,” del Toro said. “When I first saw the movie, I said to him, ‘This is not only your best movie, it’s one of my top-five (favorite) movies of all time. But don’t get bigheaded — it’s No. 5.” 

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