Mexico City as the Director of ‘Roma’ Remembers It
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.
Alfonso Cuarón based “Roma” on his childhood. Because his home had changed, a nearby facade was used as a stand-in.