“Parasite” made history two months ago (yes, two months is right — time is all sorts of funky in the age of corona) with its Best Picture win, but it certainly wasn’t the first non-English-language film to make an attempt at the Academy’s top prize. The twentieth century saw a number of French, Italian and Swedish films have a go. The year 2000 featured Ang Lee’s martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And it was only as recent as 2019 that a perhaps equally deserving film was in Best Picture contention: Alfonso Cuarón’s sublime black-and-white Netflix flick (Netflick?) “Roma.” It didn’t win. But the cast and crew still went home happy with the awards for Best Foreign Language Film (since renamed Best International Feature), Best Director and Best Cinematography.
Despite falling short of the top prize, “Roma” is one of those rare movies that may have truly earned the title of “instant classic,” a status that is being recognized by the film’s recently announced inclusion in the Criterion Collection. As Netflix’s first-ever home video release, it’s set to be accompanied by the 72-minute making-of documentary “Road to Roma,” co-directed by Andres Clariond (“Hilda”) and Gabriel Nuncio (“Cumbres”). And, this being a Netflix shindig, it’s already on the streaming service for everyone’s viewing pleasure.
“Labor of love” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot; in “Road to Roma,” we learn what exactly a labor of love looks like, as the documentary is largely a grand picking of director Cuarón’s brain. If one reads anything about “Roma,” they’ll learn that it’s a deeply personal film, a semi-autobiographical tale of Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City and an emotional ode to his beloved nanny Liboria Rodríguez, the inspiration for the film’s own protagonist Cleo. He goes so far as to call it his “first film” (an especially meaningful claim considering his sci-fi film “Gravity” was a contender for Best Picture in 2013, not to mention Oscar nominations for “Children of Men” and “Y Tu Mamá También”). In this light, “Road to Roma” brings the same keen quality of appeal that arises whenever one listens to someone talking about something they’re truly passionate about.
Cuarón definitely fits the role of the neurotic director — hemming and hawing over every angle, every set piece, every minute expression — and to that end, some might be exhausted by the eccentricities of a stereotypically ostentatious artist. But what “Road to Roma” really pounds in is that “Roma” is a film that set its sights beyond artistic quality. Cuarón’s perfectionism was not in service of perfection itself, but rather in pursuit of truth, in fidelity to Libo and to Mexico, plumbing the depths of his memory to make sure the garage tiles matched, the local delicatessens had the right signage, that even that the extras playing his neighbors looked at least a little similar.
It’s insights like these that proliferate in “Road to Roma,” as the film is largely an extended interview with Cuarón as he takes the viewer through the casting process, the set construction, the blocking and specific methods of acting and all the minutiae of film production. Anyone looking for sit-downs with the film’s lead Yalitza Aparicio — or discussion with really any other crew or cast member beyond candid footage — will be disappointed.
Ultimately, like most making-of films, this movie is an “extra.” But if one was captivated by the grace and endurance of Aparicio’s Cleo and has any interest at all in the life and work of Alfonso Cuarón, then “Road to Roma” is an enlightening experience, augmenting rather than merely ornamenting the already excellent “Roma.”