Roma, the serious Best Picture contender premiering on Netflix this Friday, is a beautiful, slow and intense film. You don’t so much watch it as allow yourself to be absorbed into it; if you can manage to put your phone down and give the Spanish-language movie your full attention, you’ll begin to feel as if you’re living the main character’s life in real time. That’s why Alfonso Cuarón’s film is so powerful — and also why one particular scene is more harrowing than anything else we saw onscreen in 2018. Stop reading if you’d like to be spoiler-free, but if you want a heads-up, here goes.
[Warning: Major spoilers for Roma.]
Set between 1970 and 1971, Roma tells the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as both a nanny and maid for a middle-class Mexico City couple, Sofia and Antonio, and their four children. In many ways, she’s part of the family, so her employers’ marriage troubles threaten to upend her life. Meanwhile, the sheltered young domestic worker is experimenting with grown-up independence. Cleo begins double-dating with her best friend, and one afternoon, she sleeps with Fermín, the man she considers her boyfriend. When Cleo later tells him she’s pregnant, he literally runs out the door.
There’s plenty of foreshadowing in Cuarón’s film to suggest that this pregnancy will not end well. Cleo drops and smashes her cup during a New Year’s toast. She stands mere yards away from a forest fire, inhaling the smoke. Fermín cruelly rejects her attempts to reconnect with him. When Cleo’s water breaks, she is hiding from a student protest turned massacre on the street below. Amid the chaos, Sofia’s family attempts to get her to the hospital quickly.
Cleo, in labor, spends hours in traffic. When she and the family arrive at the hospital, the doctor checks for a heartbeat. There isn’t one. In an excruciating real-time sequence, Cleo is rushed into surgery, where the doctors deliver her stillborn baby. They attempt to restart the child’s heart with no success. The doctors announce the baby’s death and instruct Cleo to hold her baby for the first and last time so she can say goodbye.
Even for viewers who saw it coming, the stillbirth scene is incredibly difficult to watch. We’ve heard one report of walkouts during a theatrical screening. (Roma opened in limited release in November and is still playing in some theaters.) For the many women and men who have experienced infant death or pregnancy loss, the scene is likely to bring up extremely painful memories.
So here’s your PSA: If you know someone who might be deeply upset by this moment, please give them a heads-up. Roma is a remarkable movie that ranks high on the Yahoo Entertainment staff’s year’s best list (debuting next week!), and for film buffs who want to appreciate Cuarón’s perfect shots, it’s worth seeking out a theatrical screening. But watching it on Netflix has one great advantage: If the gut-wrenching hospital scene proves to be too much, viewers can hit fast-forward.
Roma is playing in select theaters and on Netflix.
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