How ‘Roma’ Pushes the Envelope for Alfonso Cuarón

Considering his existing oeuvre, the ‘Gravity’ director’s eighth feature feels like a long time coming.
By  · Published on September 4th, 2018

Film festival season is well and truly underway. One of the most celebrated titles to land at both the Venice Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend has undoubtedly been Alfonso Cuarón’s highly-anticipated eighth feature, Roma. So far, critics have dished out nothing but universal acclaim, with “masterpiece” and “magnum opus” already thrown around to describe the movie.

And like Mudbound before it, Roma now exists as a breath of fresh air on Netflix’s overstuffed original movie slate that’s filled with far more misses than hits.

For the Cuarón superfan who’s witnessed the gradual evolution of his work, these praises feel like a given, as his cinematic daring has always been evident. From Gravity to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men to Y Tu Mamá También, he has never made the same film twice.

Cuarón made his debut in 1991 with Sólo con Tu Pareja before entering the studio system to direct the children’s book adaptation A Little Princess for Warner Bros. four years later. His next picture, Great Expectations, notwithstanding (he personally doesn’t even care for that one), his signature flair for visual spectacle and emotional resonance has carried across various genres and storylines.

After the outer space grandiosity of 2013’s Gravity netted Cuarón the Oscar for Best Director, what happens now that he has deliberately gone small and intimate for Roma?

Cuarón’s latest is a largely autobiographical period piece about a middle-class family living in 1970s Mexico City. The film is very much based on his own upbringing and particularly the women who raised him. Roma primarily centers on a domestic worker named Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio). It is through her perspective that the film unpacks its broader social themes, such as those of race and class.

In a number of promotional interviews, Cuarón has characterized Roma as a personal challenge unlike anything else he’s done before. A large portion of the movie is made up of Cuarón’s own recollections, and a recent chat with Deadline further reveals that memories and stories from the real Cleo also supplement Roma greatly.

Moreover, Cuarón was careful to ensure that the film features a strong thematic backbone outside of its profound personal portrait, as well, and that is where certain fictionalized elements come into play in Roma. As he tells Deadline:

“What we tried to do is balance between character and a social context as well. Because we’re talking about personal scars. That is definitely a period that scarred me, probably for life. I can assume that it scarred the characters that play in the film. But also the social events that were portrayed are one of the most important and deep scars in the Mexican psyche. In the collective consciousness.”

The film definitely evokes that kind of empathy, even in its short teaser trailer alone. We witness the wistful black-and-white world of Roma – a world that plays out like a vivid dream thanks to the crisp quality of Cuarón and Galo Olivares’ unflinching cinematography – evolve from a single shot of Cleo washing a floor to a collection of heartrending if disconnected vignettes. The apparent safety and security that Cleo has as a caretaker inevitably fractures when emotional toil and civil unrest unfold around her and the family she comes to call her own.

Cleo acts as core and catalyst of Roma’s key drama. Apart from consulting with the character’s real-life counterpart — she even visited the set — Cuarón confirms that reckoning with the intricacies of Cleo’s multifaceted identity was vastly important in crafting the movie’s bigger picture. According to an interview with Vanity Fair:

“And the interesting thing for me in this process was that to your loved ones, you take it for granted. You don’t really give them an individuality. […] When working, I had extensive conversations with the real-life Cleo. And then, writing her character, I was forced to approach her for the first time in my life, to see her as a woman, and a woman with the complexities of her situation. And a woman that comes from a more disadvantaged social class, that also comes from an indigenous heritage in a society that is ridden by class, but very perversely, like in the whole world, race and class are intimate.”

Cuarón has called Roma his “most essential movie” in an earlier interview with IndieWire. He exudes pride and fulfillment at the project’s completion “because it’s the first film I was fully able to convey what I wanted to convey as a film.” And indeed, the focused concept of Roma can be seen echoing throughout Cuarón’s prior work to varying degrees.

Comparisons among all of Cuarón’s Mexican feature films are immediate. Notably, in the case of Y Tu Mamá También, he has tackled an equally dense thematically driven narrative in the past. The minutiae of Y Tu Mamá También include an intentionally contained story about two best friends going on a road trip with the woman of their dreams. The film further explicates a wider context of social and economic instabilities in present-day Mexico.

However, perhaps a discernible difference between Roma and Cuarón’s other Mexico-based work could be found in its treatment of machismo – basically because Roma focuses so intently on a woman’s point-of-view. In contrast, Sólo con Tu Pareja and Y Tu Mamá También, complete with frustratingly juvenile male protagonists fighting for screen time, pointedly challenge traditional notions about masculinity by displaying it in excess, and often to darkly humorous extents.

Eventually, though, such adamant portrayals of toxic male stereotypes reach a breaking point. These characters come to searing personal realizations, and once their superficial identities are chipped away, we are left with men whose souls are uncomfortably but genuinely laid bare. Obviously, Roma will not be void of men by far. Instead, it would be fascinating to see how Cleo’s feminine viewpoint affects those depictions, and actually carves out a stamp of her own for a change.

Such examinations of character have found their way into Cuarón’s bigger feature films, too, especially when he works on their screenplays himself. Despite their technical prowess, Children of Men and Gravity aren’t just sci-fi spectacles. These movies illustrate metaphorical and visual textures through the eyes of their protagonists and thus service the audience’s visceral emotional reactions. We are fully immersed in either story and made to embody practically every feeling and sensation along with Clive Owen and Sandra Bullock’s lead characters as they observe and interact with their vicious environments (sometimes helplessly so). Roma seems to operate on that logic too, where the issues tied up with Cleo’s social standing as a domestic worker may cause a parallel kind of transience as her stability crumbles.

Needless to say, perhaps it’s true that Roma will be next-level Cuarón, because I can’t ever imagine a way for him to regress, at this point. That may be a folly of a presumption, but all signs point to the fact that going personal is the best thing for the director. Additionally, Cuarón continues to take the best qualities of his work and refine them with increasing precision, creating stories that pack a bigger punch each time. Truly, he’s coming for some Oscars yet again.

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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)