Updated: May 11
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo Gutiérrez, an indigenous live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. She and the mother Sofia and the four children return from a short vacation at the beach.
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“ROMA: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray, 2018; R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language
Best extra: “Road to Roma” documentary
DON’T GET me wrong – I’ve been a fan and supporter of The Criterion Collection since the early 1990s, purchasing a number of Criterion laserdiscs including the three-disc Special Edition of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that cost $125 back in the day.
With every technological advancement in home video, Criterion has been in the forefront supporting each upgrade in video resolution from 12-inch laserdiscs to DVDs, joining the five-inch disc bandwagon one year after it’s unveiling in 1997. Then once the high-definition format war was over between HD-DVDs and Blu-rays it produced its first Blu-ray in late 2008.
But, when the 4K Ultra HD format was unveiled in spring 2016, Criterion took a cautious wait and see approach. Now as we near the fourth anniversary of the 4K format, Criterion continues noncommittal.
That brings us to Criterion’s release No. 1014 – “Roma” from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, a film that received 10 Academy Award nominations. It was selected Best Foreign Language Film in 2019, and should have been the first International film to win Best Picture. Cuarón ended up with Oscars for Best Director and Best Cinematography.
In “Roma” he’s a one-man-band as writer/producer/director/cinematographer. As expected, he’s also the supervisor of the remarkable post-production (black & white) 4K master and enveloping Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Criterion’s presentation is a down-conversion from the 4K master without HDR toning, although the results are still gorgeous in HD.
(1) From the opening frames, director Alfonso Cuarón paints a different world as his camera locks onto a simple shot of a ceramic patio. Then the tiles are covered with waves of water and reflect a new world from above. (2) Cleo serves dinner. (3) The next day she's washing the clothes and drys them on clotheslines on the rooftop, while Paco (Carlos Peralta) and Pepe (Marco Graf) play with toy guns. (4) Cleo and Pepe take a moment to rest.
Still, Criterion’s “Roma” begs the question, how much more spectacular could this visual experience have been if it had been produced in 4K with High Dynamic Range? We’ve seen striking HDR black and white films from Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” to holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The same question must be asked to the hundred-plus other Criterion titles released since 2016 that were also mastered in true 4K and didn’t get the upgrade release?
Criterion, it’s time to honor the cinematic works presented every month in the best possible resolution and sound. Has the added cost for HDR coding been the culprit? Rest assured I would be willing – and I bet thousands more – would join in to fork over an extra $5 or $10 to fund 4K Criterion discs.
Or, has the decision already been made to release 4K movies on Criterion's streaming channel in the future? Honestly, that would only be a half-hearted step in the right direction. We all know 4K digital movies can’t compare to the higher video bit rate and full uncompressed sound from a 4K disc.
Back to Cuarón’s “Roma.”
Novelist Valeria Luiselli provides a captivating essay on “Roma” in the enclosed 100-plus page booklet, which also includes dozens of frame shots. She says, “Roma” reveals “where women, and especially indigenous and mestiza women, provided the glue that kept the world together yet were always kept invisible and inaudible.”
(1) Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Sofi and Pepe are excited to see their dad Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) driving the family car into the patio area. (2) The family watches TV, as Cleo continues to work. (3&4) Cleo's day is nearly done as she turns off the lights. Then she and her fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) do stretching exercises just before bed.
Roma” is an homage to Cuarón’s childhood growing up in the early 1970s in Mexico City, where life was overrun by social unrest. He dedicated the film to his indigenous nanny/housekeeper who helped raise him. The fictional tale takes place in Cuarón’s old neighborhood, the Colonia Roma district, where Cleo played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, a trained schoolteacher, is a dark-skinned servant from a Mixteco Mesoamerican heritage, and serves a very white upper-middle-class family. The household is made up of matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira), with her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a medical doctor who's cheating on her, and their four children – Toño, Paco, Pepe, and Sofi, plus Sofia’s mother Teresa (Verónica García).
Mexican historian Enrique Krauze provides illuminating perspectives recounting his childhood, how the “muchachas” – the “girls” like the “sweet and stoic” Cleo and her roommate and fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) – worked and lived in the homes of the privileged since colonial times. The servants would divide up the work: cooking, fixing up bedrooms, mopping floors, shopping, washing, hanging and ironing laundry. They also kept the family schedule. They were also “the tellers of stories, the guardians of faith, the confidantes, and the singers.”
From the opening frames, Cuarón paints a different world as his camera locks into scenes with minimal camera movement. A pan to the left or right is seen as if through viewers’ eyes. “Roma is quite simply, a visual document of the absurd everydayness and everythingness of life,” Luiselli says. The first shot is pointed toward the ground, a ceramic patio, and he holds the shot. Then the tiles are covered with a rhythm of coastal waves reflecting the sky and passing airliner overhead. The camera finally tilts up to show Cleo mopping the tiles from the defecating family dog. Cuarón’s camera takes us to the public hospital, a dimly lit cinema, a motel room where a sculptured man performs martial-arts moves, a New Year’s Eve party with kids, teenagers and drunken adults, to the woods fighting a brush fire, and a beach with roaring waves.
(1&2) Cleo's new boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) performs martial-arts moves inside their motel room. (3) Cleo sings a good morning song to Sofi. (4) Sofia's final kiss with Antonio as their marriage falls apart.
The Blu-ray adds an in-depth study into Cuarón’s visionary mind with four documentaries. “Road to Roma” runs 72 minutes with behind the scenes footage captured from hundreds of hours of access. Cuarón decided he would not write a screenplay, using a narrative outline with hundreds of notes from his memories. Those were not just “anecdotes and events, but small details,” he says. Known for his extensive research on his previous films such as “Children of Men” (2006) and “Gravity” (2013), Cuarón says “this was all about memories…and capturing them.”
He ended up asking family members if he could borrow their furniture to recreate his childhood home receiving 70 to 80 percent of the actual furniture; others were identical reproductions. He went through 3,500 women to find the right Cleo. It didn’t matter if she hadn’t acted before; he wasn’t going to give his actors a script. He would tell each actor what they needed to know for a scene, only shooting after a brief rehearsal. “Basically, we rehearsed as we shot,” he says. Each take had its own timing as “we kept discovering new things.” For one scene they kept shooting, ending up with over 62 takes of a six-minute continuous shot, all to capture “a moment of truth,” he said.
Another 30-minute featurette, “Snapshots from the Set,” has interviews from producers Gabriela Rodriguez and Nicolás Celis detailing the 18-week production. The majority of the actors had never been in front of a camera before. It also features production designer Eugenio Caballero, Yalitza Aparicio, and Marina de Tavira and others.
“Brings Us Together” shows how Cuarón and the producers brought the film to the people of Mexico. Some theaters were upgraded with new Dolby Atmos speakers and projectors. Getting “Roma” to rural communities required a transformed semi-truck trailer with pop-outs like an oversized camper that became an 80-seat theater. It first was shown at a number of film festivals, winning the top prize at the Venice Festival, the first time for a Mexican film. It triggered most Mexicans as if “we’re going to the World Club,” producer Nicolás Celis says. Then it was shown at the Toronto Film Festival and then two weeks later in Mexico City to qualify for consideration for Mexico’s entry into the Academy Awards.
Another featurette highlights the postproduction process for video and audio.
(1) Some months later Cleo and Fermín are at the local movie house. She tells him she may be pregnant. (2) Cleo's future is uncertain. (3&4) Sofia takes Cleo to the hospital to find out how far along she's pregnant. While driving their Sofia gets the car sandwiched between two trucks.
Before the cameras began rolling Cuarón tested a variety of cameras from 35mm film stock to digital to find the perfect media. He originally intended to shoot on 35mm in the old-school square format 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Once he consulted with longtime friend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who photographed Cuarón’s “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” he was convinced to abandon the square format and compose the frame in super widescreen ratio (2.39:1 aspect) creating a better balance between the characters and background. Cuarón intended to keep the camera stationary in many shots to allow the “character flow through the frame.”
He ended up settling on the 6.5K ARRI Alexa digital camera, with its wide dynamic range to keep the highlights and shadows in the highest quality. “I was amazed by the 6.5 and the contrast difference between classic black and white, and this pristine digital look that’s grainless, and with the highest resolution, with an amazing level of whites, grays, and blacks,” Cuarón says. He also planned to light “Roma” in very naturalistic look, “so the shadows play when they need to play and don’t exist when they don’t need to exist – just like life.” The 6.5K camera required gobs of light, but gave the director greater depth of field of focus. Since most shots were captured with a wide-angle lens, the field of focus was almost endless from the foreground all the way to distant objects indoors and outside – similar to the plane of focus with the human eye.
But, how much sharper could have these scenes been with a 4K disc and contrast level of shadows and highlights with full HDR toning?
(1-4) For New Year's Eve Sofia, the kids, and Cleo go to the countryside to visit some close friends. There's an outdoor picnic with food and gun target practice. Later that night Cleo and another worker head to the servant's New Year's Eve party. (3) The celebration fireworks cause a brush fire and everyone helps to douse the flames. (4) New Years Day they go for a walk through the fields.
Presented through an astonishing Dolby Atmos soundtrack, thousands of sounds are pushed to every speaker in the room. There’s no music score for “Roma,” just natural sounds of dripping water, a car blasting its horn, an LP record playing in a room, a distant jetliner, birds, barking dogs or the whisper of a character.
Cuarón made sure every character in each scene was equipped with a wireless microphone to capture their voice. As expected, the sound editing and mix were both nominated for Oscars. It took eight weeks to mix the rich location audio to create Cuarón’s Mexico City soundscape. The work was handled at Pinewood Studios near London. The mission for mixers Craig Henighan and Skip Lievsay was to make the sound as interesting and distinctive as the pictures. “We had the chance to try to examine every sound from a different point of view. To reinvent the whole thing,” Lievsay says. “We found that, with the sound, if we were very clever and thorough the audience would be standing at the edge of a doorway and at a certain point they would step in.”
“Roma” is one of those movies that film students will examine for decades into how to engage an audience with a simple story, letting the camera and sound transport them into its world.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch Producer
(1&2) Cleo takes a bus to the village were Fermín lives and finds the town center with mud and large puddles of water. She hopes to tell him the latest about the expected baby. (3) Sofia tells Cleo that they only have each other. (4) The Corpus Christi massacre unfolds as a crowd of protesting students are attacked by the Halcones, a group of young government-trained paramilitaries intended to pass as a rival faction.
(1) Cleo's water breaks during the Corpus Christi massacre and she's rushed to the hospital. (2) Cleo during the delivery. (3) Cleo and the family go to a Veracruz beach.