Roma: Alfonso Cuaron’s Undisputed Masterpiece

Of the 29 films that I saw at the 2018 Venice Film Fest, which was very strong artistically, one stood out above all others: Alfonso Curon’s Roma.


Alfonso Cuaron is one of Hollywood’s most innovative and versatile directors, equally comfortable at making big-budget franchise movies (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), epic-scale movies (“Gravity”), for which he won the Best Director Oscar, and intimate erotic tales (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”).

Roma, the most personal project, centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young domestic worker of a family in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood. In this love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood, creating an emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst Mexico’s political turmoil of the 1970s.

Roma marks Cuarón’s first project since the groundbreaking Gravity in 2013, which was a global hit.  It is fourth feature to world premiere at the Venice Film Fest, folloing Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity

The filmmaker began thinking about a movie based on memories of his childhood more than 15 years ago.  It’s clearly a passion project: “While I was finishing my previous film, I promised myself that my next would be simpler and more personal. I realized that it was finally the moment in which I could go back and do a film in Mexico, but with all the resources, tools and techniques I’ve acquired over the years.”

With a shooting schedule that spanned 108 days–his longest ever–Cuarón was able to focus on the  everyday life of one family and community, circa 1970-1971, describing their ordinary and extraordinary moments.

Like the family in the film, Mexico itself was undergoing radical transformation. Student demonstrations aimed at promoting democracy climaxed in the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre, when a government-supported paramilitary group, Los Halcones (the Hawks), brutally killed 120 people.

As the first film shot in his birth country since Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Cuaron was determined to make the experience quintessentially Mexican. “It was very freeing to shoot a film in my mother language again, The Spanish we speak is Chilango, the accent that denotes that you are from Mexico City. I dream in Chilango; it’s organic and instinctual for me. There was a certain subtlety of the language that I wanted to rescue from the time period.”

As for casting, they did a huge search for all of the main characters based on real-life people. The protagonist, Cleo, is played by Yalitza Aparicio, a woman with no acting experience who was discovered in a rural village in Oaxaca.  Says Cuaron: “Yalitza is not a professional actress, but she is the most amazing actress I’ve ever worked with. She learned how to assume her role in the smallest details and gestures. Without Yalitza, this film would fall apart.”

Like the way that Woody Allen works, the cast members never saw a complete script of the film (only Cuarón had the entire script throughout shooting). Each character only knew her own story.

The film was shot in chronological order—which is unusual–and Cuarón talked each through what was going on in each scene. “Sometimes I would just tell them what we were doing. For specific dialogue, I would give it to them in the morning. The whole idea was to disrupt the notion of a pre-rehearsed scene.” Cuarón assembled an exclusively Mexican crew who contributed their own experience: I wanted everybody to be a resource, either in terms of research of the period, or their own memories.”

Production designer Eugenio Caballero, Oscar-winner of Guillermo del Toros Pan’s Labyrinth, was brought in to recreate the Roma of Cuarón’s past. Most of the scenes were shot where the actual events occurred. For the main location, Caballero literally built an exact replica of Cuarón’s childhood home. In the home’s courtyard, an elaborate system of rails and drapes could manipulate the light to resemble day or night, rain or shine. “We had amazing flexibility to stage scenes without interruption as the actors went from room to room,” says Cuarón.  To dress the set accurately, he contacted his family to retrieve whatever furniture and personal items still existed.

“There’s an old chair that was in my grandmother’s house. The dining room, the breakfast room and the living room have the original furniture. Many of the objects in the children’s rooms are things we kept or reproduced for the film. Viewing the completed set for the first time was very emotional: I did not anticipate the impact it would have on me and my family. They came to visit the set and had the same reaction I did.”