Netflix can be strangely shy about recommending brand-new content. Watching every previous episode of BoJack Horseman, for example, is apparently not enough for the service’s vaunted algorithm to prevent me from having to search for new episodes on the day they’re released. But launch the app right now, and you’ll find the entire login screen devoted to alerting you that Roma is now available for streaming.
Netflix clearly intends for Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, a lyrical black-and-white story set in Mexico City in 1970 and ’71, to be its first Best Picture nominee, and it’s put a ton of resources behind that goal, throwing a lavish party, complete with dedicated mezcal bar, at the Toronto International Film Festival to introduce the film to critics, and even coordinating a screening campaign with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to head off complaints that Cuarón, who based the film’s protagonist on his childhood maid, might be exploiting her story. But its most dramatic commitment to Roma’s Oscar campaign was granting an exclusive three-week run in movie theaters before it debuted on the service—an unprecedented break with the site’s core mission of instant availability. In the past, Netflix had granted limited theatrical runs to movies like Beasts of No Nation, but only simultaneous with their streaming debut, and it actually pulled Roma from the Cannes film festival in May after the festival insisted it would not be allowed in competition without a theatrical release.
However, after Roma’s premiere, it became clear that the film’s crystalline images (captured with the ultra-high-definition Alexa 65 camera) and elaborate sound design were key to the film’s success—and that with those elements diminished by the transition to the smaller screen, Cuarón’s deep-focus shots and leisurely pans might prove more soporific than engrossing. Netflix not only put Roma in movie theaters but sought out cinemas that could project the movie in 70 mm with Dolby Atmos sound, a combination that gives the film an almost hallucinogenic clarity. The sound of dripping water or the whistle of a passing knife salesman sounds as if it’s coming from a few rows behind you, and when the camera pans across the bookshelves that dominate the central family’s home, you can practically read the titles on every spine.
Backing Netflix’s decision, and perhaps sensing a chance to claw back some territory, movie critics took up Roma’s theatrical release as a crusade. “I rarely get evangelical about viewing modalities,” wrote Slate’s Dana Stevens in her review, “but if there’s any way to do so where you live, please get yourself to a real theater to see this.” Critics are advocates for their art form, if not every instance of it, so it’s not surprising that they—or, OK, we—would pounce on the opportunity to promote the theatrical release of a movie that exploits the potential of theatrical viewing to its fullest. But this call rankled some prospective viewers, especially those without an easy way to see Roma in theaters. Suggesting it was best to see Roma in a movie theater meant that seeing it at home was inferior, and that, the argument went, was elitist, or privileged.
I’ve seen Roma three times now, first on a massive screen in Toronto’s 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre, second in a Dolby screening room, and the third time in my living room. It’s been a different movie every time, in part because of circumstances having nothing to do with the quality of its exhibition: It’s hard to compare the electric atmosphere of a film’s North American premiere with the tranquil perfection of a private screening room, and hard to measure either against the experience of snuggling up on a couch with my wife and two pets, a freshly mixed cocktail near at hand. But all else being equal, Roma is more the movie it’s supposed to be on a theater screen. That’s not to say it’s better, exactly. At home, with a Netflix-provided DVD approximating the quality of streaming, I took in pieces of dialogue I’d missed on previous viewings, so absorbed was I by the uncanny texture of the film’s images that I neglected to take in what characters were saying off screen. The sound, meanwhile, was still intricately mixed, but my non-Atmos speakers never instilled the urge to swivel in my seat and check if the ceiling had sprung a leak. Those qualities are an integral part of Cuarón’s vision, and along with the sprawling wide shots in which the film’s central character is only one figure among many, they unsettle the idea of Roma as a naturalistic nostalgia piece, or a straightforward tribute to a beloved childhood figure. Roma isn’t necessarily a lesser movie without them, but it feels, subtly but significantly, like a different one.
Critics sometimes talk as if the brightness of a projector bulb and the gleam of a fresh 35 mm print were the only variables, but they can only reward attention if it’s paid. It’s easier to give yourself to a movie in a theater, but it’s not a given, especially with a smartphone burning a hole in your pocket, and it’s possible to replicate, or at least simulate, that intensity at home. It’s just a lot harder. You can watch Roma in optimal theatrical conditions and get nothing from it, just as you could stand in front of Guernica or Starry Night and come away with little more than bragging rights. There will be people who watch Roma on their laptops—or, horror of invariably evoked horrors, on their phones—and have insights I never would. They won’t see the film in the same way, but they might see it more clearly.