Alfonso Cuarón has already won two Academy Awards, for Best Picture and Best Achievement in Film Editing in 2014 for Gravity. In 2019, he is up for five more Oscars for Roma: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Achievement in Cinematography. Between 1947, when the Best Foreign Language category was inaugurated, and 2018, only four Foreign Language category nominees were also nominated for Best Picture (Z, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Amour). Three other foreign language films gained Best Picture nominations despite not being nominated in the Foreign Language category (The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers and The Postman). None of these films took the top prize, although all four films that were nominated in both categories did win the best Foreign Language film award. So, if precedent is a guide, Roma is favored to win Best Foreign Language film, but not Best Picture.
Roma has a lot in common with the Polish film, Cold War. Both films are shot in black and white. Both films are at least semi-autobiographical. Both gained Best Director nominations. And, as it happens, Alfonso Cuarón and Paweł Pawlikowski, the director of Cold War, are good friends. In fact, Cuarón includes Pawlikowski in his list of acknowledgements at the end of Roma.
For those who have not yet seen this film, Roma is the name of the neighborhood in which Cuarón grew up in Mexico City. Cleo (played by non-professional and now Oscar nominee Yalitsa Aparicio) is one of two live-in maids who work in the home of a doctor, Antonio, and his biochemist wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira, who landed an unexpected Best Supporting Actress nomination). Husband Antonio leaves Sofia for a younger woman. Cleo becomes pregnant and life becomes difficult as Sofia, her mother and the two maids try to take care of Sofia’s four children. So much has been written about Roma that I’m hesitant to go into greater detail about the plot. Instead, allow me to point out a couple aspects of the film that made me uncomfortable, without intending to diminish my admiration for Cuarón’s achievement.
I saw Roma at a Netflix showing at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on Sunset Boulevard on a huge screen that was perfect for the beautiful cinematography, for which Cuarón uses many slow panning shots and pre-drone dolly shots. Afterwards, Netflix set out a buffet lunch for hundreds of audience members (mostly Academy and guild members) that no doubt cost more than the entire budget of Yemen’s Foreign Language entry, 10 Days Before the Wedding. I took the liberty of wandering amongst the crowd eavesdropping while they ate.
After Cleo announces her pregnancy to the father, Fermin, he abandons her. She tracks him down at a martial arts training camp, and he tells her to get lost. It’s a heartbreaking scene. Later, she encounters Fermin as he runs into a department store in order to gun down an anti-government protestor. During my eavesdropping tour, I listened to three people discussing how Fermin was a left-wing militant. Wrong. He’s a member of a right-wing, pro-government paramilitary militia. I suppose, since Roma is set in 1971, when Cuarón was nine years old, such a distinction isn’t so important because, to children, street violence is just street violence. But from the point of view of Mexican history, this is a fairly important distinction which Cuarón does not clarify.
Antonio owns a Ford Galaxy that barely fits inside the family’s garage. Indeed, when he is drunk, Antonio bangs against the walls. After he leaves, Sofia drives the car and, unfamiliar with its size, wedges it between two trucks at an intersection. Towards the end of Roma, Sofia trades in the car for one of her own choosing that fits easily in the garage. This is a nice bit of uplifting symbolism. While eavesdropping, I heard two women laughing about the scene where Sofia gets stuck between two trucks. I waited for them to comment on the rest of the scenes about cars, but they just moved on to other subjects. They had missed the symbolism.
And then there’s the family’s dog, which shits in the garage because it has nowhere else to go. I realize that the father is one of the film’s bad guys for abandoning his family, but who can blame him when he gets mad every time he has to negotiate piles of dog shit just to get to the wheel. Sure, everyone is busy with lots of work at the house, but couldn’t someone clean up this mess, at least on a daily basis. I mentioned this to family friends who own three dogs. They became quite animated. Not only had this bothered them too, but, they asked, why did no one ever take the dog for a walk?
I realize that my complaints are just about petty details, but there is one plot development that rang so false that it was disruptive. If you haven’t seen Roma, don’t read the rest of this paragraph. But if you have…near the end, is it really credible that a mother would leave two of her children in the ocean with someone who can’t swim, while the mother goes off to check on her car? Sure, it’s great for creating tension, but this seemed so out-of-character that it was jarring.
One more miscellaneous note. I was in the Mexico City airport waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles. The atmosphere was chaotic. There were no lines, and the announcements by the Aeromexico staff could not be deciphered in Spanish or in English. As hundreds of us milled around, I noticed an airport employee ask to have his photo taken with the woman standing next to me with her back to me. It was Yalitza Aparicio. I asked permission to ask her a couple questions through her friend and translator Nancy García, who plays the other maid in Roma. When I asked Aparicio if she would continue acting or go back to her plan to become a teacher, she shrugged and said she would wait to see if someone offered her another role. What struck me most was that almost no one in the crowd recognized her. Soon she would be on the cover of Vogue México with a lead article titled “A star is born” in Spanish and Mixtec, and she would be nominated for an Academy Award. It’s hard to experience such unplanned success and not have it go to your head, but it seemed to me that she was probably one of the rare ones who could handle it.