Breaking Down Alfonso Cuarón’s Impeccable Cinematographic Vision

The ‘Roma’ director’s visual experimentation is one for the books.
Alfonso Cuaron Gravity
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on December 10th, 2018

The release of Alfonso Cuarón‘s highly anticipated eighth feature, Roma, is nigh. Hence, it is now an ideal time to look back on the acclaimed director’s work. Cuarón’s stellar filmmaking is an all-encompassing feat to witness. Notably, so much of the emotional resonance in his movies is greatly dependent on his naturalistic cinematographic prowess.

Normally, that skill can partially be credited to Cuarón’s long-time director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Prior to Roma, the cinematographer had gorgeously captured every single Cuarón film except for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Lubezki would have joined the Roma crew if scheduling conflicts had not gotten in the way as well.

But frankly, does it really matter who composes the images of Cuarón’s films? Of course, Lubezki’s exact filmmaking is an impeccable addition to any movie. However, the real narrative hook of Cuarón’s work manifests in how purposeful each individual cinematographic choice is. It’s not enough that they’re pretty.

To demonstrate this, a video essay and accompanying blog post by Studio Binder collectively delve into Cuarón’s storytelling process by looking at the visuals in his projects. The way he elects to operate the camera can radically alter the perception and reception of any storyline massively.

Cuarón expertly demands audience investment in the most organic way. Watch the video below to find out how.

The admittedly surprising combination of accessibility and potency plays a huge part in making Cuarón’s projects truly special. Even his blockbusters — Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity — pack a discernible punch because of the manner in which he commits to the individual tone of the story at hand. And surely, Cuarón does so by ensuring audiences keep close to the heart of his films. This seemingly simple decision makes a vital difference in his choice of cinematographic method each time.

The standard Cuarón approach involves uses of the long take. Moreover, he is often seen experimenting with just how extreme he can utilize it to engage audiences. The famed “elastic shots” in Gravity create stark variations in viewpoint within a single situation, oscillating between objective and subjective experiences of being stuck in the vacuum of space. Cuarón’s handheld shots seen in Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También employs a documentarian style for peak immersion of their respective chaos.

Arguably, Roma is Cuarón’s next moviemaking experiment that twists his tried and true techniques to achieve a different sensation of engrossment. The film reconstructs some of the director’s most intimate childhood memories into a sociopolitical discussion of Mexico in the 1970s. And as explained at Netflix’s “Roma Experience” publicity panel, Cuarón chases observation in this particular throwback.

Although left to shoot his latest by himself, Cuarón prepped Roma with Lubezki. The former is well aware of his frequent collaborator’s style, ideas, and notes. However, it’s also worth noting that Cuarón’s camera work probably cannot be separated from his deeply personal connections to its subject matter. What results is the perfect balance of emotional intimacy and more artistic, distant cinematic examination.

The presence of the camera as a “consciousness” — in Lubezki’s words — travels with the Roma narrative intuitively. The DP likens it to an all-knowing gaze. Meanwhile, Cuarón elaborates his own intentions for those specific choices by saying:

“I would say it’s the ghost of the present that is visiting the past, without getting involved, just observing, not trying to make a judgment or commentary. Everything there would be the commentary itself.”

And that’s why Roma has gotten critics in a frenzy. The movie’s leading ladies Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) tackle individual adversities as women of different class and social standing. Pair that poignancy with Cuarón’s wondrous camera movements that evoke a sense of dreaminess and Roma delicately and stunningly portrays female resilience. The film is a visionary landscape that exudes full-bodied warmth because Cuarón reveres the women who raised him and makes it obvious in his cinematography, transforming personal narrative into conscious social commentary.

In other Cuarón features, the stoicism and intelligence of women have definitely peeked through their examinations of machismo. My favorite film of his, Y Tu Mamá También, is careful to have its female lead own her narrative in small ways, in spite of the inherent tragedies that follow her throughout the film. In contrast, a film like Gravity with a vulnerable female lead is an experimental exercise that steers clear of “macho heroism.”

These narratives work hand in hand with a camera that’s positioned and pointed in the right direction. Importantly, as we can garner from some Filmmaking Tips of Cuarón’s, he is not a director who necessarily prefers certain aspects of his movies to unequivocally stand out. As he says, “It’s about what gels everything together that suddenly clicks and gives you that experience.”

Everything in Cuarón’s films is meaningful and that’s how he creates powerful cinema.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)