Netflix lusts after awards because it sees it as a way to legitimize its offerings in the face of industry naysayers who keep the streaming service at arm’s length. That’s because Netflix (NFLX) has disrupted the natural order of things and helped usher in what could be the last gasp of linear television. The platform has dominated the medium with magnetic television series across the spectrum that have established it as a go-to entertainment destination. But when it comes to film, Netflix has largely been looked at as the irksome little sibling to Hollywood’s entrenched incumbents.
That all could change with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
In 2015, Netflix touted Cary Fukunaga and Idris Elba’s Beasts of No Nation as a surefire Best Picture nominee, but the tragic and powerful child soldier tale ultimately proved too convoluted and bloodthirsty for the Academy’s taste. Last year, Dee Rees’ no-nonsense Mudbound unfurled a gripping American tale of war and racism and even scored four Oscar nominations. Yet most awards pundits pegged Sean Baker’s emotional The Florida Project as the real snub of awards season. But Roma, Cuarón’s beautifully personal and immaculately constructed semi-autobiographical tale, is the film Netflix and its 137 million worldwide subscribers have been waiting for.
Loosely based on Cuarón’s own upbringing, the movie follows impoverished live-in housekeeper and nanny Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who shines) as she toils away under-appreciated by a middle class family. Despite the story’s simplicity, Cuarón—who American audiences know best for his Oscar-winning Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men—manages to imbue Roma with his mastery of visual language, employing long and deliberate pans to literally present a 360-degree picture of these characters’ lives.
And, oh, what characters. It’s clear how much Cuarón, who also wrote the script, cares for these people, and his passion and empathy immediately become infectious. Roma is very much about the strength of the women who raised the filmmaker and the links that can form between individuals of entirely different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. The film tearfully conveys that the world is saturated with plenty of pain to go around, yet it is the connections we make through all pockets of life that get us through it. Those we embrace become our strength, and vice versa. (I’m crying just thinking about it.)
On paper, Roma should not be an awards contender. It’s shot in crisp black and white with a largely unknown cast, and there’s nary a word of English spoken throughout its run time. Mainstream appeal this has not. But the film is so overwhelmingly good that it has stormed the gates of tradition and even convinced Netflix to break from its organizational mandate as an online-first service. The streamer is screening Roma exclusively in select theaters for three weeks to help build buzz before it becomes available via Netflix on December 14 (it will do the same for Sandra Bullock’s Bird Box and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).
Though the beautiful 65mm Dolby Atmos movie is best seen on the big screen if possible—the black-and-white photography is so pure it’s like revisiting a memory—it’s also the type of intimate feature that works for at-home viewing. You’ll be clutching your friend/family member/significant other as Roma underscores the importance of relationships. As Observer’s Rex Reed described it, “Roma is the director’s most personal and intimate film, and a great work of art.” It is somehow understated and grand all at once.
It also offers the company a chance at history: Roma could become just the 11th foreign language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (none have won), and also the first streaming movie to take home the top prize. We’re just one year removed from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale becoming the first streaming series to win Outstanding Drama at the Emmys, leaving film as the next domino to fall. Roma has already claimed the Golden Lion prize for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, and similar honors could be coming from the New York Film Critics Circle or the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
The odds may be stacked against Roma given its language barrier, composition and delivery system. The competition this year is strong as well. As many as nine other films—A Star Is Born, Widows, Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk, First Man, The Favourite, BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Vice —have all been pegged as potential contenders. But there’s a chance the entertainment industry is on the precipice of monumental change, and though the major Hollywood studios may lament the shift, audiences everywhere are benefiting from the deluge of brilliant content.
Is this Netflix’s moment? Will Roma break new ground for the Academy Awards? Finding out will be almost as exciting as the movie itself.