Al­fonso Cuarón on his ‘Roma,’ which took me back to my child­hood, home­town

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - ENTERTAINMENT - RUBEN V. NEPALES

LOS AN­GE­LES— Al­though I was sit­ting in a dark theater in Lon­don when I watched Al­fonso Cuarón’s ac­claimed “Roma,” the writer-di­rec­tor’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film based on his child­hood in­stantly trans­ported me back to my own days grow­ing up in the Philip­pines.

“Roma’s” black-and-white recre­ation of a year in the life of Cuarón’s fam­ily in Mex­ico, fo­cus­ing on his nanny (based on his real-life care­giver, Li­bo­ria “Libo” Ro­driguez), struck a chord with me emo­tion­ally. My fam­ily in Calasiao, Pan­gasi­nan, was by no means rich but I also had a nanny, ac­tu­ally a rel­a­tive who be­came like my sec­ond mother. Atchi Vir­ing, as I called her, helped raise me since I was a baby. Libo also came to the Cuarón fam­ily when Al­fonso was only 9 months old. The di­rec­tor went on an in­ten­sive search for the ac­tress who would play Libo, named Cleo in the movie. The mo­ment Al­fonso saw Yal­itza Apari­cio, a teacher with zero act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, he knew he found his Libo, who had a pro­found im­pact on his life.

Yal­itza de­liv­ers with a sin­cere, hon­est per­for­mance that is cru­cial in this drama.


The film is set in the early 1970s when cities around the world like Mex­ico City and Manila were swept up in a fer­vor of stu­dent ac­tivism.

So “Roma’s” stu­dent protest scenes also brought back mem­o­ries of youth ral­lies and marches against then Pres­i­dent Fer­di­nand Mar­cos.

There are fam­ily ex­cur­sions to the beach, which re­minded me of our own day trips to beaches in Dagu­pan and Lin­gayen.

A scene in a movie theater in Mex­ico City brought back mem­o­ries of my Atchi Vir­ing bring­ing me to watch Sam­pa­guita Pic­tures movies in Dagu­pan’s movie houses.

“I am the sec­ond child, the an­noy­ing one,” he an­swered with a laugh when I asked him in a Los An­ge­les in­ter­view which one is he in the movie’s brood of three sons and a


Ma­rina de Tavira plays the mom, Sofia, who at first hides the fact that her hus­band and the kids’ dad has left for good (it’s one of Al­fonso’s sad child­hood mem­o­ries).

“Roma’s” ti­tle came from the name of the neigh­bor­hood where Al­fonso lived with his fam­ily, which in­cluded a grandma (Veron­ica Gar­cia) and two do­mes­tic work­ers, Cleo and Adela (Nancy Gar­cia, also a de­but­ing ac­tor and Yal­itza’s best friend in real life).

Al­fonso, upon hear­ing how “Roma” res­onated with me strongly be­cause of par­al­lels in our child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences, said, “There are cer­tain coun­tries in which the so­cial bar­ri­ers are more ev­i­dent than oth­ers be­cause all the world has a so­cial class struc­ture… cer­tain coun­tries like our coun­tries, Third World coun­tries, in which you have a small priv­i­leged class amid huge poverty.

“The thing is that you are say­ing that your fam­ily wasn’t rich but you had a do­mes­tic worker liv­ing with you or work­ing for you. That is very clear. There are peo­ple who re­ally need the do­mes­tic work­ers’ ser­vices. And the same as my fam­ily.”

The Os­car and Golden Globe best di­rec­tor win­ner for “Gravity” clar­i­fied, “It’s so funny be­cause I have read re­views in which they talk about our up­per­class house. But ours was a lower-mid­dle-class house and ev­ery­thing was old. Maybe it doesn’t look like that but ev­ery­thing was old. But there’s al­ways that thing in our so­ci­eties in th­ese coun­tries that there are al­ways poorer peo­ple and in need of jobs.”

Al­fonso and his pro­duc­tion de­signer, Eu­ge­nio Ca­ballero, recre­ated his child­hood home in the same neigh­bor­hood where he grew up.

While “Roma” is a very spe­cific chron­i­cle of a year in the Cuarón house­hold, Al­fonso is sur­prised and moved that the film is be­ing uni­ver­sally em­braced around the world.


“I am re­ally touched that dif­fer­ent cul­tures are re­act­ing to ‘Roma’ in such an emo­tional way,” the film­maker said about his first Spanish-lan­guage film since 2001’s “Y Tu Mama Tam­bien.”

His other di­rect­ing cred­its in­clude “Chil­dren of Men,” “Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Akz­a­ban” and “A Lit­tle Princess.”

“Dur­ing the Tokyo Film Fes­ti­val, this par­tic­u­lar friend—a poet who lives there—started send­ing me tweets of the re­ac­tions of peo­ple. Peo­ple talked about their own child­hood. With films or art, I use the base in which peo­ple put their own ex­pe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries. So the film is univer­sal be­cause it’s about peo­ple and fam­i­lies. The so­cial class dynamic hap­pens ev­ery­where.”

“I am more than sur­prised about the re­ac­tion, I have to say,” he added.

He pointed out that “Roma” is that rare film. He did not con­sult his Mex­i­can film­maker com­padres.

“This is a film that was the first one that I didn’t col­lab­o­rate with Ale­jan­dro (Iñár­ritu), Guillermo (del Toro) or Car­los (Cuarón), my brother who wrote ‘Y Tu Mama Tam­bien.’ I needed it to be an in­ti­mate process. But I would tell them, look, this is a film I have to do. I re­ally didn’t think any­one will see it. It’s some­thing very per­sonal and I didn’t even know if it was go­ing to work.

“And so it was a re­ally beau­ti­ful sur­prise to see the re­ac­tion of peo­ple. And it’s like life. En­joy the ride while it lasts be­cause then it’s over, just like life. And there are ups and downs.”

Mex­ico sub­mit­ted “Roma” as the coun­try’s en­try to the Academy’s best for­eign lan­guage film race.

Net­flix, which bought the film, is con­sid­er­ing op­tions to re­lease “Roma” the­atri­cally to in­crease its chances in the Os­car’s other cat­e­gories, es­pe­cially the best pic­ture com­pe­ti­tion.

Mak­ing the film, which he has planned to do since 2006, was an emo­tional re­lease for the di­rec­tor who also served as the cin­e­matog­ra­pher.

“I was very un­aware how cathar­tic mak­ing the film was go­ing to be. Be­cause when I started shooting, first you are pro­cess­ing and go­ing into a cre- ative process. Then af­ter the cre­ative process of writ­ing the screen­play, it be­comes very much about putting it to­gether, find­ing lo­ca­tions, ac­tors, de­tails, the right cos­tumes and cars.

“Ev­ery­thing has to be au­then­tic so your head is so busy with lo­gis­tics. It was not un­til maybe two or three weeks into the shoot when ev­ery­thing started to set­tle, the lo­ca­tions were there, that I be­came aware of what I was do­ing. It be­came freaky from then on, to say the least (laughs). I was re­vis­it­ing my past with peo­ple who look like my fam­ily, in the same place, with the same fur­ni­ture, and recre­at­ing scenes—a lot of them were very painful. So it was com­plex.”


Aside from Cleo, the other main pro­tag­o­nist is the mom who tries to hold her fam­ily to­gether amid the di­vorce.

“Di­vorc­ing in Mex­ico in the 1970s was like di­vorc­ing in the US in the 1930s,” Al­fonso ex­plained. “It was like you are al­ready marked. There was a lot of judg­ment on the woman, that she could not put her fam­ily to­gether. And that is my mem­ory. I re­mem­ber my mother feel­ing com­pletely at loss. And her brother com­pletely judged her for not be­ing able to keep the fam­ily.”

Libo was re­port­edly on the set when they filmed the scene in which Ma­rina, as the mother, fi­nally told the kids that their fa­ther would not be home for Christ­mas and would not re­turn.

Libo re­port­edly broke into tears, mak­ing her re­mem­ber that she felt sad for the kids, more than any­thing else.

De­spite the story’s deeply per­sonal con­nec­tion to Al­fonso, he avoided mak­ing “Roma” a nos­tal­gic film.

“I wanted it to be an ob­jec- tive ex­pe­ri­ence, an ob­server trust­ing and hon­or­ing that. And hon­or­ing the flow of space and time with th­ese char­ac­ters and the cir­cum­stances and trust­ing that the emo­tions are there. I pur­posely didn’t want to do a nos­tal­gic film about go­ing into the ex­pe­ri­ence of the kid or the ex­pe­ri­ence of Cleo. It was about ob­serv­ing them and trust­ing the au­di­ences.”

He hopes do­mes­tic work­ers ev­ery­where will get re­spect and fair treat­ment.

“I think it’s just about the re­spect that we can give to th­ese work­ers,” he stressed. “Right now, they are kind of in­vis­i­ble and they don’t ex­ist un­til we need some­thing. And their func­tion and their jobs are looked down at. It’s im­por­tant to start ap­pre­ci­at­ing more of how priv­i­leged we are.

“But it’s not only do­mes­tic work­ers… any sin­gle per­son who is work­ing—be­hind that work and that worker, there’s a fam­ily. There are chil­dren and there’s a whole other ex­pe­ri­ence and a whole other ex­is­tence. It’s not only about ours.”

Al­fonso, who orig­i­nally wanted to be a pi­lot or an as­tro­naut, promised Libo as a kid that when he grew up, he would take her on trips. Now 56, the film­maker has made good his prom­ise to Libo, 74, to take her trav­el­ing. And he ded­i­cated “Roma” to Libo.

My Atchi Vir­ing was not as for­tu­nate. She passed away from can­cer in the late 1970s. But it’s a tribute to her that I have not for­got­ten her, es­pe­cially in­side that Lon­don movie house where I was silently wip­ing away tears.


“Roma's” early 1970s era of stu­dent ac­tivism and story about a nanny's piv­otal role in a fam­ily in Mex­ico re­minded the colum­nist of his own child­hood in the Philip­pines.—


Al­fonso Cuarón


Al­fonso Cuarón recre­ated his fam­ily home in the early 1970s in “Roma,” an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film based on his child­hood.

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