Telluride: 'Roma' Greeted With Raves, But Presents Netflix With Oscar Season Challenges

Alfonso Cuaron's latest project is his most personal yet — and is also a Netflix-distributed black-and-white Spanish-language film featuring no "name" stars, all factors that could turn off some Academy members.
Courtesy of TIFF

On the heels of a rapturously received Venice Film Festival world premiere, Roma, Alfonso Cuaron's deeply personal tribute to the women who raised him in Mexico, had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday night and then screened again here on Saturday morning, garnering similar raves. Both Telluride screenings of the lyrical and lush film followed career tributes to Cuaron, who made his name with Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), the latter of which brought him a best director Oscar. He has been trying to make Roma since 2006.

As impressive as it is, Roma, which Netflix will begin streaming on its service Dec. 14, will present its Oscar season backers — including top awards strategist Lisa Taback, who recently joined the company — with considerable challenges. For one thing, many Academy members are still resistant to films that have anything to do with Netflix because the company does not release its movies theatrically beyond Oscar-qualifying runs (although rumor has it Roma may be getting special treatment in that regard). But, beyond that, it's a black-and-white Spanish-language film featuring no "name" stars, and each of those factors are turnoffs to chunks of Academy members.

Still, I expect Roma to be among the year's most critically acclaimed pictures, and strong reviews and word-of-mouth, and eventually critics' awards, could help it over those hurdles.

Roma, which is set in 1971 Mexico, centers on an upper middle-class family and Cleo, their young, poor, indigenous live-in nanny who tends to housekeeping and nannying duties. Cleo — a member of the family, but not really, in that she is often unappreciated by and almost invisible to the others — is played beautifully by Yalitza Aparicio, who, remarkably, had never acted before this film. Cuaron always creates wonderful parts for women, from Julianne Moore's in Children of Men to Sandra Bullock's in Gravity, and this one is no exception. Aparicio's performance may have been further helped by the fact that — according to Cuaron during the Q&A that accompanied Saturday's tribute — he shot this film in-sequence and with only verbal directions, never showing anyone else the script, which he also wrote.

Cuaron's film deals with matters of class (numerous parts of it reminded me of Jean Renoir's 1939 classic The Rules of the Game), and is often heartbreaking, but also has a sense of humor (many laughs were provoked by images unaccompanied by words). At the end of the day, I think it probably will become the first Netflix film to land a best picture nom; Cuaron will register best director, best original screenplay and best cinematography noms (Cuaron's regular DP, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, was unavailable, so Cuaron shot the film himself, and the cinematographers branch loves a good black-and-white film); and it could even show up in other categories like film editing and best production design.

The big question is whether or not the acting branch will get behind Aparicio, who, in my view, is certainly worthy of being recognized with a lead actress nom. It would not be unheard of for a total unknown to score a nod for a performance given predominantly in a language other than English. Recent examples include two performers who, like Aparicio, gave Spanish-language performances: Catalina Sandino Moreno, who was nominated for best actress for playing a drug mule in 2004's Maria Full of Grace; and Adriana Barraza, who was nominated for best supporting actress for playing a domestic in 2006's Babel, Cuaron pal Alejandro G. Inarritu's film which was also nominated for best picture.

It seems all but certain that Mexico will also submit Roma as its entry for the best foreign language film Oscar race, and it could prove very hard to beat in that category.