Picture your childhood home. How well do you remember it? The colour of the front door. The pictures on the walls. The shape of the kitchen; the way it used to smell in the morning. Every corner, cupboard and creaking floorboard. The view out of your bedroom window. The people inside. From an early age we instinctively take mental snapshots of our surroundings, yet it is a simple fact of life that even the most familiar and seemingly indelible memories fade. However hard we may try and fight it, the mind’s eye loses focus over time.
Roma, the eighth feature from Alfonso Cuarón, is an attempt to recall the past with perfect fidelity. Set in Mexico City in the early 1970s, it is a living scrapbook of the writer/director’s own youth – a meticulous recreation of the eponymous neighbourhood as it once looked. Asked whether he regards the film as his most personal, Cuarón pauses before breaking into a broad smile. “This is as personal as I can go, in the sense that 90 per cent of the scenes came from my memory. The idea of capturing memory is what dictated the whole process.”
Acting as his own cinematographer for the first time in nearly 20 years (Cuarón’s go-to DoP Emmanuel Lubezki was committed to another project when production began in late 2016), Cuarón chose to shoot Roma in black-and-white on crisp digital 65mm format, giving the film a period-specific yet timeless quality. Further to this, Cuarón opted for a more pure, stripped-back aesthetic. “I didn’t want to interfere too much,” he explains. “When you are trying to capture memory, your own sense of style has to be hidden. It has to be almost absent. I realised that [the film] could not be subjective in the sense of it being told from someone’s individual point of view.”
So, no signature dolly shots moving in and out of the frame (“I love them, but they are very subjective camera moves”), but lots of fluid long takes and slow, inconspicuous pans to enhance the naturalistic tone. The overall effect is a singularly immersive viewing experience, something akin to stepping into an old photograph of someone you never knew but somehow feel a deep connection to. As Cuarón describes it, “it’s as if you’re transported in time into that moment of your memory. In order to achieve that, I had to keep everything distant, to simply observe the moments.”
The idea for Roma first came to Cuarón in 2006 – read interviews with him from around that time and you’ll find him openly discussing it as his next film – yet he believes he could not have made it back then, even if he had had the means to do so. Although the atmosphere-shattering success of Gravity meant that Cuarón could secure the resources to make Roma exactly how he wanted, he says this extended gestation period was the most important factor in helping him to realise his vision because it allowed him to develop the “emotional tools” he lacked previously.
Cuarón is 56 at the time of writing, and you sense he needed to give himself that bit longer to process everything he wanted to say with Roma, to map out all of his thematic concerns in more precise detail. Yes, memories fade, but with age comes perspective, a greater appreciation for and understanding of life in all its strange beauty and complexity. The truly astonishing thing about this film is not the sheer amount of autobiographical information it contains, but how Cuarón makes it seem as though we are watching memories being formed spontaneously in real-time.
This is no happy accident, of course, but the result of a rigorous, methodical approach. Cuarón exerted complete control over every stage of the production, even going so far as to keep the cast and crew in the dark over the script. “Nobody had it,” he reveals. “I would stage the scene, but I wouldn’t say much more to the actors. Some would use the lines they were given, others would just improvise around the lines that I would deliver. It was about giving them spoonfuls of information and letting the whole scene unfold, but then introducing new elements that would catch some of them off guard and seeing how they would react to the uncertainty of each moment. It was about trying to be as random as possible. The way that life is, you know?”
On a practical level, Roma represents the most ambitious undertaking of Cuarón’s career. The main interior setting, for example, is an exact replica of his childhood home, painstakingly decked out by production designer Eugenio Caballero. “I wanted to shoot in the real house,” says Cuarón, “but it’s now so subdivided and transformed that it would have been impossible. It didn’t make any sense. So we took measurements from the original house, and photographic references, then looked for a house that had exactly the same measurements and transformed it to match the architecture and the aesthetic. It was a house that was going to be demolished, so we had free reign to do whatever we wanted.”
When it came to the exteriors, Caballero and his team went one further, building an entire shopping precinct from memory and a few dozen reference images. It is the largest set ever constructed for a Cuarón film. “We reproduced every single detail as accurately as we could,” the director recalls, “like the wedding dress shop and the photography shop and the veterinarian, all with the original names. It was something we had to do because that street today is so transformed you would never recognise it.” The street Cuarón grew up on has changed a lot over the years too, so to bring it back to the way it was a number of the buildings had to re-clad.
To add yet another layer of realism, Cuarón subtly embellishes each scene with incidental background sounds and images: music pours from record players and radio sets; light dances off of reflective surfaces (store windows, pools of water, row upon row of immaculately polished American cars); a marching band shuffles down an otherwise quiet residential road, playing a slightly off- key tune; planes drift overhead. Everyday reminders, Cuarón says, “of another reality that existed outside of my own.”
Crucially, Roma is based not only on Cuarón’s reminiscences. If it is his most personal film to date, this is partly because it centres around “one of the people I love most in my life”. That person is Libo, the housemaid who helped to raise Cuarón along with his sister and two brothers. Roma is dedicated to her. Renamed Cleo in the film, and wonderfully brought to life by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio, she is the heart and soul of this intimate, humane portrait of a middle-class family undergoing a mini domestic crisis amid wider social turmoil.
This is Cleo’s story as much as it is Cuarón’s, and as such he spent a lot of time “digging into her memories to the point of being very forensic about her routine.” He wanted to know everything there was to know: “How she would sit on the bed when she woke up; how she washed the clothes; whether she wore an apron or not; what music she listened to; how she dressed; if she wore her hair up or down. It was like trying to honour a sense of reality based upon our memories.”
Did Cuarón’s siblings have any input? “That was an interesting one because I would do all this research with the real-life Cleo and then I would speak with my siblings, and what happened sometimes was a contradiction of memories. But it was clear that my younger brother was a bit too young at that time to have clear memories. My older brother had already blocked out a lot of the memories. The most amazing person was my sister. She was the one that I would double check things with, or ask her, ‘Do you remember when this happened?’”
By virtue of the fact that the real-life Cleo was an employee and not a relative, Cuarón confesses that he still feels conflicted about the nature of their relationship. “It’s very, very nasty, actually, because on one hand you want to be nurtured by this woman – in many ways she assumes the role that a mother would take, only more present – but by the same token you ask things of her in the same way that you would ask a servant. As a kid you don’t divorce one thing from the other.” Making this film was a cathartic experience, Cuarón says, because it enabled him to see Cleo, “in a way I probably never considered growing up: that this person is a woman, and not only a woman but an indigenous woman from a different social class.”
For Cuarón, then, Roma is not only a self-reflexive critique but an interrogation of his country’s chequered past. It forced him to reconcile his relatively privileged and sheltered existence with that of people like Cleo. He recalls, for instance, how a public massacre – one of the most infamous in Mexico’s history, in which scores of student demonstrators were slaughtered by the paramilitary group known as Los Halcones (The Hawks) – had a profound impact on him. “It was the first time I saw the world outside of the comfortable middle-class bubble I was living in. I suddenly became aware of the complexities in my country.”
Cuarón continues, “I had an uncle who was a criminologist and a communist, and I remember talking with him about students, because they had a very bad rep in the mainstream media; they were always demonising them and talking bad about them. At some point I repeated something I had heard and my uncle said, ‘Why are you saying that of students when you are a student?’ I said, ‘I’m not student…’ and he said, ‘Yes you are, you go to school.’ For some reason for me a ‘student’ was this other thing. I became more aware in that moment and then when the massacre happened I thought, ‘Wow, that could have happened to me if I was older’. That massacre left a big scar on the collective consciousness of the Mexican people.”
Cuarón currently lives in London, but returns to Mexico at least twice a year with his kids so that they can form their own memories of their ancestral home. “They love it. They have a strong Mexican identity, which I think is very important. This thing of awareness of memory only comes when we start losing it later on, when we get busy with our lives. But kids love to reference things that happened in the past. My kids, who are now 13 and 15, will say to me, ‘Do you remember when I was seven and this happened?’ I love that, I love the conversation. There is a certain pleasure and a certain learning process that comes out of that.”
Family matters in Roma. In one scene, Cleo takes the kids to a local cinema to see Marooned, the 1969 Gregory Peck space adventure which provided the inspiration for Gravity. At first glance it appears that Cuarón is merely feeding his own sense of nostalgia, but the underlying message is that even the most personal memories are shaped by social circumstances and collective experiences, just as individual narratives are always embedded in collective history. Look carefully and you’ll notice a breadcrumb trail of references and recurring motifs linking Roma to some of Cuarón’s other films too – the aforementioned massacre calls to mind 2006’s Children of Men, while a trip to the beach evokes 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También.
“I didn’t notice that at the time,” Cuarón admits, “but I think those three films are all very similar. We are talking about, ultimately, three road movies. I think of Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men and Roma as being very closely related. I would like to do more personal films like this, but I’m not a very prolific filmmaker. I don’t have a clear idea of what I would like to do now. The byproduct of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s is that I may lose my memory sooner than everybody else. But I don’t know. It was never a case of trying to preserve my memory. It was more like an existential need to bring all of that stuff out. It was like cleaning up your house.”