DOWN TO EARTH
Alfonso Cuarón follows up Gravity by returning to his roots with the intimate yet epic Roma
Following the head-spinning experience of making 2013 astronaut epic Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón felt the need to decompress. “I spent so much time in space,” he laughs, “I felt like I needed to be grounded.” The project that’s brought him back to terra firma couldn’t be more different. Roma is an autobiographical drama that Cuarón says is “90 per cent rooted in my own memory. In many ways it is unlike any other film I’ve ever done.”
Named after Cuarón’s childhood neighbourhood, Roma chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in early ’70s Mexico City through the prism of nanny Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). A love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón has broadened the scope to take in the changing face of his homeland,
as the family’s sanctity is threatened by student revolutions and a governmentbacked militia.
“The film is about the characters and the social context through which they flow,” he says. “It’s also a film about the perverse relationship between race and class, about how the scars we acquire growing up are also the wounds that are afflicted to societies. In that sense, the social and the personal are very connected.”
To keep things real, Cuarón changed up his filmmaking MO. He cast non-professionals alongside veteran actors. He was also the only person on set to have a script. “I didn’t want anybody working from expectations of what they had seen written in stone,” he explains. “Our memories nurtured each other.” He also wanted to “use all the toys that you have working in a big Hollywood production in the service of another kind of story.” This included shooting the film in black-and-white on a large-format 65mm 6K camera, in order to make the intimate feel epic.
“I wanted it to be black-and-white but not a nostalgic ’40s, ’50s or ’60s black-and-white,” Cuarón says.
“I wanted to tell a period film in a contemporary language. 65mm was perfect to allow the characters just to be alone inside the frame. You also have a resolution that is completely opposite to the purists’ idea of grain. I love grain but I wanted a completely different approach.” When his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki proved unavailable, Cuarón also became his own DP. “I was a bit concerned,” he levels. “I made the decision I didn’t want to develop communication in English while I was doing a film in my mother tongue, so I decided to bite the bullet. After the first couple of days, it turned into a very natural process.” If a black-and-white, Spanishlanguage Mexican film with no stars seems a commercially risky affair, Cuarón found a supportive partner in Netflix — “They offered the best life for the movie… They understood its universality” — who promised theatrical and home distribution, bringing the director’s labour of love to a perfect conclusion. “On a personal level, it was a very heated, moving experience,” he concludes, “but very satisfying.” If you can’t imagine a more intense ride than being hurled around space with Sandra Bullock, you might have to think again.
Main: Nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) comforts her young charge while his mother hugs his father goodbye. Above: Director/writer Alfonso Cuarón gives direction to Aparicio.