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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 2.39:1 Widescreen
  • Spanish Dolby Atmos
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Road to “Roma,” a new documentary about the making of the film, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and an interview with Alfonso Cuarón
  • Snapshots from the Set, a new documentary featuring actors Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, producers Gabriela Rodríguez and Nicolás Celis, production designer Eugenio Caballero, casting director Luis Rosales, executive producer David Linde, and others
  • New documentaries about the film’s sound and postproduction processes, featuring Alfonso Cuarón; Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay, and Craig Henighan from the postproduction sound team; editor Adam Gough; postproduction supervisor Carlos Morales; and finishing artist Steven J. Scott
  • New documentary about the film’s ambitious theatrical campaign and social impact in Mexico, featuring Nicolás Celis and Gabriela Rodríguez
  • Nothing at Stake, a new video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada
  • Trailers
  • Essays by novelist Valeria Luiselli and historian Enrique K

Roma

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón
2018 | 135 Minutes | Licensor: Netflix

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #1014
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: February 11, 2020
Review Date: February 6, 2020

Purchase From:
amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

With his eighth and most personal film, Alfonso Cuarón recreated the early-1970s Mexico City of his childhood, narrating a tumultuous period in the life of a middle-class family through the experiences of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in a revelatory screen debut), the indigenous domestic worker who keeps the household running. Charged with the care of four small children abandoned by their father, Cleo tends to the family even as her own life is shaken by personal and political upheavals. Written, directed, shot, and coedited by Cuarón, Roma is a labor of love with few parallels in the history of cinema, deploying monumental black-and-white cinematography, an immersive soundtrack, and a mixture of professional and nonprofessional performances to shape its author’s memories into a world of enveloping texture, and to pay tribute to the woman who nurtured him.


PICTURE

The Criterion Collection presents Alfonso Caurón’s Roma on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition digital encode is sourced from the film’s original 4K master. This marks the home video debut for the film, which was previously available exclusively on Netflix after a short theatrical run.

It appears Criterion is using the exact same master that Netflix used for whatever files they created for their streaming service’s viewing options, which is a high-definition presentation and a 4K presentation. In comparison to the high-definition presentation on Netflix this does look better from a digital perspective, thanks to the fact that bandwidth and compression isn’t as big an issue, allowing for a better bitrate. This leads to a far cleaner look, with banding, noise, and other compression artifacts never rearing their heads (though credit must be given to Netflix that these things aren’t as bad as they could be on their service). The image, in the end, is razor sharp and crystal clear, with a staggering amount of fine-object detail, also present in long shots. The household, the streets, the beach at the end, even the dark movie theater, all of them come to vivid life. The black and white photography looks absolutely stunning, with superb range in the grayscale, bright (but never blooming) whites, and rich, deep blacks. This all looks rather exceptional. Since the film was shot in 4K there is no grain to speak of, but the image never looks flat and I have to say this easily the best looking black-and-white digital film I’ve seen so far.

So, for a high-def image it looks excellent, and is noticeably better than Netflix’s high-def presentation. But how does it compare to Netflix’s 4K presentation? While streaming in 4K has its obvious limitations (again, it comes down to bandwidth and compression) I have so far been mostly pleased with how it can look. Detail can definitely be better, or at least appear to be, but I still think the advantage is in colours, along with grays and blacks (thanks to the improved dynamic range), and in this latter regard, the black-and-white Roma looks crazy-good on Netflix in 4K. When it comes to compression and the general cleanliness of the image I would say the Blu-ray is better, because artifacts are still limited, but when it comes to contrast, blacks, grayscale, and so forth, the 4K presentation on Netflix looks pretty damn good. And this makes it all the more disappointing that Criterion didn’t take the leap to 4K UHD with this title, because this film would look incredible on the format. As it is, it looks damn good, but a 4K disc would have just been a knock-out.

(As a note, this disc is indicated to be region free and played in both my region A and region B players.)

10/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The film’s Spanish language soundtrack is presented here in Dolby Atmos, and a whole feature on the disc goes over how the sound design of the film was made specifically for the technology, and I will say right off it really does show.

For those not all that familiar with what Dolby Atmos is, the technology is best described as “object-oriented”, meaning that it creates a 3D sound-field (which would be the audience’s seating area) with specific sounds—the “sound” being the object in question—placed at a certain XYZ position in this space, with the ability to move these sounds through it. So, for example, if the sound mixers want an explosion to sound like it’s at a certain position in the viewing area, instead of mixing the required signals directly to specific speakers to create the effect, they just provide an XYZ position and then the Atmos enabled receiver takes that encoded position and uses the speaker configuration to best create the illusion of that sound happening at that position, with the additional Atmos speakers aiding in the height. The advantage of this is that it technically doesn’t matter how many speakers you have (you technically don’t even need the extra Atmos speakers, though they obviously help) as the Dolby Atmos system will work with what equipment you have to place the sound effect at that position. And, of course, the more speakers you have the more accurate that position. A core audio file, provided in 7.1 Dolby TrueHD also makes sure the soundtrack will work on older non-Atmos systems, though it mixes directly to each speaker and does not create the same effect unfortunately.

Though an Atmos soundtrack will technically work (to an extent) with any speaker configuration, to get the full effect the ideal home theater set-up would be a 7.2.4 configuration (not counting a commercial setting with hundreds of speakers, of course). The 7 represents the standard 7-channel home theater set-up (3 speakers in the front, 4 surrounding), while the 2 would represent 2 sub-woofers, if one was so inclined to add a second one. The 4 would represent the Atmos speakers, which are either ceiling or wall mounted, and there are even special angled ones that aim upwards and bounce the sound off of the ceiling. In the case of 4 Atmos speakers there would be two in the front and two in behind, both left and right.

I updated to an Atmos system last summer, though mine is (currently) a 5.1.2 set-up, which is a standard 5.1 configuration along with two Atmos angled Klipsch speakers in the front, sitting on my left and right speakers respectively. I still haven’t found an ideal way to set-up the two extra speakers for a 7.1 presentation in my viewing room and probably won’t bother with the two additional Atmos speakers until I can get that all sorted out. I wanted to clarify this set-up before I get into the audio portion of this review, as it will be based on this 5.1.2 configuration.

But even in that mid-level environment the soundtrack for this film sounds absolutely incredible, and I can only imagine how someone with the full Atmos set-up will experience it. I’ve listened to a number of Atmos tracks (and DTS:X tracks) since setting this up and I’ve usually been underwhelmed, to a point where I would be constantly checking my configuration to make sure I have it set up right. I’m feeling much better about it after this one, though, it just absolutely floored me.

What got me was just how immersive the soundtrack was; it really does put you in the middle of everything. The opening sequence, where the car port floor is being cleaned, was impressive enough on its own, but as the film progressed, and the action would pick up (in busier environments), the soundtrack really goes above and beyond. The street noises completely envelope you, as do other sequences with crowds. But the scenes that really show things off circle around moments where guns are firing, or an earthquake happens, or a hailstorm, or the waves hitting a beach. The earthquake has things rumbling, people calling out, and it sounds like there is a lot going on above. And then a couple scenes where gunfire occurs has the cracking noises echo above, and in one case it sounds like it’s all happening in a tight quarter, and there’s a completely natural echo effect to aid in this. The sounds literally move over and around you, and it’s so clean and so natural. Nothing about it feels forced. I don’t know how many cars-moviing-left-to-right (or vice-versa) effects I’ve heard in films before, but I’ve never been so giddy over one before this.

The lower channel also gets an impressive amount to do, with the earthquake being its most impressive moment, but it’s never overbearing and never drowns out anything. Audio quality overall is distinctive and sharp, with incredible range. The music is mixed perfectly and the dialogue sounds clean and natural.

And how does it compare to Netflix’s presentation? The Atmos track here clearly blows the Netflix presentation away, just kills it and then sets fire to the corpse, though this is not an entirely fair comparison. I use an Amazon 4K Fire Stick, and though the stick will work with the technology (apparently) as far as I can see the Netflix app on there doesn’t deliver Dolby Atmos, so I only viewed the film in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. In terms of the mix and surround presentation it does sound good yet is nowhere near as impressive or immersive. But even getting down to general quality the track does sound flatter on Netflix, and the level of clarity on the disc is second-to-none; those waves on the beach sound so real on the disc and so lifeless in comparison on Netflix. If there was one reason alone to buy this disc instead of just revisiting it on Netflix, it’s for the audio.

Criterion also includes a Spanish descriptive audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. I’ve come across these before on a handful of titles, but this is the first time I’ve seen one on a Criterion release. Essentially, the track describes the action on screen (in Spanish), while also translating the dialogue spoken in Mixtec. I then checked the film on Netflix and see it comes with the same option. Criterion also presents the film’s English language subtitles in the same manner Netflix does, with dialogue spoken in Mixtec wrapped in square braces. The disc also features optional French and Spanish subtitles (the latter only translating English and Mixtec dialogue) along with a Spanish SDH track, subtitling everything.

Admittedly my praise for the Dolby Atmos soundtrack should be taken with a grain of salt: the presentation might not be as impressive on a 7.2.4 environment, or could be even better, and I still haven’t listened to a lot of Atmos soundtracks. But I have never heard anything like this before on a home theater system. I’ve heard impressive 5.1 mixes that did a solid job creating an amazing 3D environment, but nothing to this scale. This track really was something, really impressed me beyond any reasonable measure and it was certainly not something I would have ever expected for what is a slow, reflective film.

10/10

SUPPLEMENTS

For a film readily available to stream for anybody with a Netflix account, it may seem a bit unnecessary to buy a physical copy. But Criterion throws in a number of in-depth and insightful supplements around the film, and if the improved A/V presentation isn’t enough to push a sale, these supplements sure might! As long as you’re interested in such things, of course.

First up are a couple of Netflix documentaries: the 72-minute The Road to “Roma” and the 32-minute Snapshots from the Set. I was under the impression the former was available on Netflix, though doing a current search I can’t seem to find it. At any rate, The Road to “Roma” is the more in-depth making-of, looking at the production from a higher level. Though there is a lot of behind-the-scene footage and some quick interviews with other members of the production, Caurón takes the lead here, sitting to talk about the production, how it developed over the years before he started putting in the research and figuring out the look. Caurón also talks a little about his childhood and “Libo,” the nanny/housekeeper that played a huge part in his life and served as inspiration for the film. While it offers a little bit of context around certain events in the film, these are unfortunately skimmed across a bit, as is one of the more interesting aspects of the film’s production: the extensive special effects work that went into recreating the 1970s period location. Thankfully this latter subject gets covered in more detail in another feature on the disc.

Though hours and hours of footage was apparently filmed of behind-the-scenes material, the disappointing aspect is that very little is utilized here. The documentary is a good making-of in the end, but it is comprised mostly of Caurón sitting there talking about the production. Some of this other footage makes it into the Snapshots documentary, which also features interviews with other members of the cast and crew, going over the rather complicated production. Also popping up is Cold War’s director Pawel Pawlikowski, who visited the set expecting a “small, personal independent” production (as Caurón described it to him), only to discover what was more along the lines of a big Hollywood production.

The next few supplements have been produced by Criterion and are exclusive to this release. The two most interesting ones, though, have to do with the film’s post-production process. The 21-minute The Look of “Roma” covers the overall design of the film, from the choice of aspect ratio to the use of digital. Interestingly Caurón initially planned to film in a 1.37:1 ratio on 35mm. It then looks extensively into how CGI was employed to adjust the lighting in the film. This is the most shocking aspect of the film’s production. Even though I knew the film was altered digitally I really had no idea just how far this aspect went and it’s insane just what can be done and how none of it is noticeable. The digital tinkering even went as far as changing how interiors are laid out, where windows are located, where light sources are, and creating the city backdrop, even the trollies and cars that appear. It’s estimated there may be only 20 shots in the film that were not digitally altered. This was absolutely fascinating and the level of detail here is extraordinary.

As thrilled as I was with that last feature I was probably even more thrilled with the next one, The Sound of “Roma”. This feature, which runs 27-minutes, looks at every aspect of the sound in the film, right down to the creation of the Foley effects. But the most fascinating aspect is the portion on the Dolby Atmos system and how the technology was utilized. Caurón recalls hearing a demo of it years back and realizing how it could be used in film. And from here we get various demos of how the track was created, even getting to see the software in use. It’s a great, and as an added bonus, the feature is presented in Dolby Atmos itself to provide samples from the film. Together these two features offer a couple of the best technical features I’ve ever seen about a film.

Criterion has also created an 18-minute feature around the film’s theatrical release in Mexico, called ”Roma” Brings Us Together. Similar to other countries, theater chains in Mexico were not kind to the film because of its Netflix connection, refusing to screen it. Caurón felt it was important to get the film in theaters and thankfully many independent venues (who, in some cases, needed updates to their projectors and sound systems) were willing to screen it. Rural areas proved more difficult, though, because there were no theaters nearby. To get the film out there Caurón and Netflix rigged up a “mobile cinema,” which was large trailer that could be driven through the country and could fold out into a small theater, seating up to 90 people. Though I would have appreciated more about the film’s theatrical release in other countries, as well as more about Netflix’s involvement, it’s still a fascinating look at the film’s very unusual distribution model and how it was greeted in Mexico.

Criterion then includes two theatrical trailers for the film. The most impressive aspect to this edition, though, is the 108-page booklet that comes with the release. There are a number of stills from the film spread throughout (some of which fold out), but there are also photos around the film’s research, including photos taken during location scouting and historical photos references to recreate the time period. There are also several writings around the film, though, oddly, nothing exclusively written for this release. An essay by Valeria Luiselli looks at the film as a snapshot of a certain era that also captures the feeling of the time, while another by Enrique Krauze looks at how the film can be seen to reflect the present, going over the representation of classes, the poor, and even a number of set pieces in the film. One of the more interesting inclusions here is a reprinting of various Twitter threads created by author Aurelio Asiain, which he wrote following (or during, I guess) repeat viewings of the film, which offer some real stream-of-consciousness analysis of the film and specific points within it. A great companion to the post-production features is the final piece, which was originally written for a booklet created by Netflix in 2019, covering the film’s production design. It’s divided into a number sections looking at the creation of the film’s numerous settings and it’s a great read. Again, there is nothing exclusive here, nothing commissioned by Criterion, but it’s still a wonderful collection of material, and I found the reprinting of the Twitter entries a rather fascinating one.

I was expecting a more standard collection of features, something most studios would put together, but the material is all quite good, covering the technical and personal aspects of the film rather well. If there is one weakness it is that it does skimp a bit on the historical and political context of the film, only getting into these subjects at a surface level. But outside of that this is some of the more fascinating production material I’ve seen around a film, if only because the film really seems so quiet and simple on the surface, but the reality is it was anything but. Although I was incredibly fond of the film to begin with, I almost feel I came out of this with a whole other level of appreciation for it.

9/10

CLOSING

If you’re going to put a film readily available to stream (and will be for the foreseeable future) out on home video this is how you do it. Yes, a 4K UHD option would be very welcome (and I will hope this will happen at some point) but as it is the Blu-ray’s presentation is exceptional, delivering in both the picture and audio department, with the audio being a real stand-out. Throw in some engaging and incredibly insightful features and you have an exceptional edition, and I’m looking forward to what Criterion might be doing with future Netflix titles.


View packaging for this Blu-ray

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