Me­xi­co Ci­ty as the Director of ‘Ro­ma’ Re­mem­bers It

Der Standard - - THE NEW YORK TIMES INTERNATIONAL WEEKLY -

ME­XI­CO CI­TY — The­re is a cha­rac­ter in the film “Ro­ma” who ap­pears on­screen on­ly for a mo­ment. Yet he ma­kes a deep mark. He’s a sweet-po­ta­to ven­dor. All we he­ar of him is his si­gna­tu­re call: a steam whist­le that soars to a high­pit­ched scream and then ta­pers off, fa­ding in­to so­me kind of mourn­f­ul de­ath. “So damn me­lan­ch­oly,” said Al­fon­so Cuarón, who wro­te and di­rec­ted the film. “The­re’s al­ways a sen­se of lo­ne­li­ness that goes with that whist­le.”

Mr. Cuarón, 57, and I we­re stuck in traf­fic in Me­xi­co Ci­ty. He was pro­mo­ting his film — an Os­car hope­ful — and sho­w­ing me the neigh­borhood whe­re he grew up, Ro­ma.

In the film, the sweet-po­ta­to ven­dor has com­pa­ny: the gar­ba­ge collec­tor swin­ging a hand bell; the kni­fe shar­pe­ner too­ting a pan flu­te. The­se calls are part of the tu­mul­tuous au­ral land­scape of Me­xi­co Ci­ty, as fa­mi­li­ar to the ci­ty’s re­si­dents to­day as they we­re in the 1970s, when the ac­tion in “Ro­ma” un­folds.

The mo­vie is ba­sed on events in Mr. Cuarón’s li­fe. “Ro­ma” is about a do­mestic worker and her em­ploy­er, a midd­le- class Me­xi­can fa­mi­ly that is co­m­ing apart. But the film is al­so about Me­xi­co Ci­ty at a mo­ment in its his­to­ry.

Though much of the film is shot in­doors, the cho­rus of the street finds its way in, as if to re­mind us that this ci­ty is a cha­rac­ter in its own right. “That was the in­ten­ti­on,” Mr. Cuarón said. The film, he said, was as much about the broa­der so­ci­al con­text as it was about the fa­mi­ly at the cen­ter of it.

As we tur­ned in­to Ro­ma, Mr. Cuarón, ge­stu­ring to buil­dings with Art Nou­veau and Art De­co tou­ches, said: “It’s a beautiful neigh­borhood. Look at the ar­chi­tec­tu­re, man.”

Ro­ma was de­ve­l­o­ped in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry for the ci­ty’s eli­te. Grand vil­las fron­ted on­to tree-li­ned bou­le­vards, and the pla­zas cal­led to mind elegant gre­en spaces in Europe. In the midd­le of the 20th cen­tu­ry, ma­ny re­si­dents mo­ved from the ci­ty cen­ter and we­re re­pla­ced by a midd­le class, said En­ri­que Krau­ze, a Me­xi­can his­to­ri­an. “In 1970 and 1971, the ye­ars that Cuarón re­crea­tes in ‘Ro­ma,’ the neigh­bor- hood was a la­bo­ra­to­ry of re­al, not idea­li­zed, co­exis­tence, with its pres­ti­gious schools and its ca­ba­rets and bro­t­hels,” Mr. Krau­ze wro­te in a re­cent es­say about the film.

Ro­ma was hit hard by a de­va­s­ta­ting ear­t­h­qua­ke in 1985, which ac­ce­le­ra­ted its dis­in­te­gra­ti­on. But in the past de­ca­de, it has be­co­me hip again.

We par­ked and ma­de our way down the si­de­walk. Mr. Cuarón stop­ped at the in­ter­sec­tion of In­sur­gen­tes Ave­nue and Ba­ja Ca­li­for­nia Ave­nue. A re­pli­ca of the in­ter­sec­tion as it loo­ked in the ear­ly 1970s ap­pears in the film when the lead cha­rac­ter, the hou­se­kee­per, Cleo, runs af­ter the child­ren. But the in­ter­sec­tion is quie­ter and mo­re or­der­ly on­screen. Mr. Cuarón said, “When you ca­me he­re, it was the dream of cos­mo­po­li­ta­nism and mo­der­ni­ty that Me­xi­co star­ted li­ving in that pe­ri­od.”

Now, howe­ver, it was ur­ban tu­mult. We pas­sed ad­ver­ti­se­ments for “Ro­ma” pos­ted on a bus stop. The film has be­en well-re­cei­ved in Me­xi­co. At a news­stand, Mr. Cuarón spot­ted a pho­to of Ya­litza Apa­ri­cio, who plays Cleo, on the co­ver of a ma­ga­zi­ne. Her images ha­ve spur­red de­ba­tes about the un­der­re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on of in­di­ge­nous Me­xi­cans in po­pu­lar cul­tu­re and deep-sea­ted ra­cism and clas­sism in Me­xi­co.

Mr. Cuarón grew up a few blocks away, on Te­pe­ji Street. He be­mo­a­ned chan­ges that ho­meow­ners had ma­de, co­ver­ing up so­me de­tails that ga­ve the ar­chi­tec­tu­re its charm.

Mr. Cuarón and his team we­re me­ti­cu­lous in their re- crea­ti­on of how things we­re.

Their most ex­ac­ting at­ten­ti­on was paid to the re- crea­ti­on of Mr. Cuarón’s childhood hou­se. They ad­ap­ted the fa­ca­de of a hou­se across the street for the ex­te­ri­or sce­nes and a se­cond location for the rooft­op shots. For the pa­tio and in­te­ri­or views, they re­mo­de­led ano­ther hou­se, even hi­ring an ar­ti­san to re­pro­du­ce the ori­gi­nal ti­les. I as­ked Mr. Cuarón why he had be­en so ob­ses­si­ve with de­tails of his hou­se, when few people would ha­ve known the dif­fe­rence. He re­plied flat­ly: “I would know.”

A clea­ning wo­man was sweeping the street and si­de­walk in front of the hou­se next to his childhood ho­me. Then she took a pail of wa­ter and star­ted spla­shing the si­de­walk and the fa­ca­de of the hou­se.

“That sound!” Mr. Cuarón ex­clai­med, his eyes light­ing up. The film opens with Cleo scrub­bing the fa­mi­ly’s dri­veway using wa­ter and a broom, and he see­med plea­sed by this in­ter­sec­tion of li­fe imi­ta­ting art imi­ta­ting li­fe. For all that had chan­ged, so­me things re­mai­ned as he re­mem­be­red.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADRIA­NA ZEHBRAUSKAS FOR THE NEW YORK TI­MES, ABOVE AND BE­LOW RIGHT; CAR­LOS SOMONTE/NET­FLIX, VIA AS­SO­CIA­TED PRESS

Al­fon­so Cuarón ba­sed “Ro­ma” on his childhood. Be­cau­se his ho­me had chan­ged, a ne­ar­by fa­ca­de was used as a stand-in.

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