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Pop Stuff: Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’

How the award-winning Mexican filmmaker dove into his memories and those of the housekeeper who raised him to discuss marginalization

Soleil Nathwani Jan 02, 2019

Photo: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s piercingly beautiful Roma, a film meticulously stitched together from his memories and those of the housekeeper who brought him up, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August to the gasps that accompany movie magic. A slew of awards later, in the run up to the Oscars, Roma has been widely heralded as the film of 2018 for its stunning black and white visuals, sweeping cinematography, sensitive storytelling and aural magnificence absent an actual score. Cuarón has an ability, perhaps greater than any other filmmaker, to make each moment feel personal and visceral while maintaining a sense of scale, whether it is miles traveled in the road comedy Y Tu Mama Tambien, time eclipsed in dystopian thriller Children of Men, or planets traversed in the Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity. It is a credit to his style that in Roma–a glimpse into a Mexican family navigating upheaval–we feel an even greater sense of awe, of grasping life and death, of time and the course of history, than in his outer space epic. Astonishingly, the director’s craft is Roma’s minor victory, its major one is its unconventional lead, Cleo and its treatment of the way we chose to look back.

Cuarón conceived of Roma, his most personal film to date, as a tribute to the women in his life and to, he says, ”˜the elements that forged me.’ He grew up in the 70s in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, from which the film takes its name. Roma breathes life into Cuarón’s boyhood depicting the passing of a year for an upper-middle class family modeled on his own and set in a home built to resemble his childhood residence, down to the outdoor corridors where his father squeezed in the family car and the rooftop he escaped to where the washing hung to dry. Events unfold as Sofia, the matriarch, her four children, their grandmother and two maids, Cleo and Adela, are left to manage after Antonio, the father, unceremoniously leaves his family for his mistress. In revisiting his early years, Cuarón collaborated with his childhood nanny, Libo, to fill the gaps in his memories and in doing so began the excavation of her own. It is her memories, the event of Libo’s life, that populate the film in the form of the maid Cleo’s story. Cuarón doesn’t just re-examine the elements that forged him, he re-interprets them and does the crucial work of telling the story of the unseen and the unheard, those designated by power as the unimportant.

Cuarón’s childhood, his family’s upheaval and the city’s ebb and flow are the stitches that bind the rhythm of Cleo’s day and the bigger moments of her life. The family’s own crisis, of a father and husband absconding, plays background score to Cleo’s hope, tragedy and resolve. Although we see Cleo seamlessly meeting everyone’s needs–feeding the children, cleaning dog poop from the driveway, one of the ”˜family’ in the convenient parlance of the privileged, what Cuarón intensifies on screen is the life she lived that was absent from his recollections. The Mexico of the time, a nation in a period of unrest and transition under a new administration serves largely to amplify Cleo’s own drama. At one point Roma faithfully recreates the scene of the shocking Corpus Christi student massacre which a pregnant Cleo sees unfold, the shock of the violence pushing her into labor.

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As with the script, in casting the film Cuarón has gone to great lengths to be faithful to the truth, veering well away from stereotypical presentations of divisions of power which often glamorize the rich and make poverty porn of the poor. Liboria Rodriguez, Cuarón’s ”˜Libo,’ now in her seventies, who meets us on screen as the young maid Cleo, is played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. Libo joined the family, just barely an adult herself, when Cuarón was 9 months old. She came from the small village of Tepelmeme in the state of Oaxaca, an indigenous Mixtec woman from a world far removed from cosmopolitan city life. Cuarón ventured into cities and eventually villages all over Mexico before finding his ”˜Libo’ in Aparicio, who was a kindergarten teacher in rural Oaxaca. He brought on her real life best friend to play Adela and cast the rest of the family largely from first timers, doppelgangers to their real life counterparts, the only well-known face being the mother Sofia, played by Mexican TV, film and stage actor Marina de Tavira.

Cuarón’s method of filming amplifies the sense of naturalism and recollection that makes Roma stand apart. He shot each scene chronologically over a grueling 110 days without rehearsal, only giving the actors their pages before each shoot. The bewitching result is characters discovering their circumstances day by day, echoing life itself. The expansive black and white tableaus of Roma appear like postcards unfurling. We witness each glorious frame to delve into the particulars of the scene as the camera holds close to emotion and detail and pans in signature long takes over events unfolding, deepening our sense of long ago moments remembered. This, combined with bringing Libo’s recollections to the foreground while his own recede, yields the antithesis of a self-indulgent reminiscence.

Roma imparts this reverse nostalgia and unsuspectingly dislodges our consciousness, shaking loose our own memory tree. No matter how divergent your own childhood might be from Cuarón’s, it is impossible to watch Roma without being pulled back into your past even as its narrative pulses with the immediacy of heartbreak, childbirth and resolution and pushes forward. In India, where accessing Roma through a Netflix account is a luxury, for those who can, the dynamic of living in a home with domestic help is even more familiar territory. Watching Roma brought back memories of the maid who lived with us for most of my childhood. As Cleo hung the clothes to dry on screen, laying down in the afternoon sun for a brief respite, a little boy beside her tired from his games, my mind reached for memories forgotten. I remembered escaping my parents in the kitchen after Sunday lunches, resting my spindly legs on cool tile, watching fascinated as our maid cooked her meal, hot green peppers split open, stuffed with tangy spiced coconut. She fed us but she didn’t eat with us. Watching Roma, I realized how shamefully little I knew of the life of a woman who felt so close to me, how despite our notions of generosity, those who ”˜serve’ us are never quite afforded as significant a selfhood.

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It is this sense of self that Roma restores to the forgotten. And Cuarón is vocal about saying that this drove him to make the film. He says, “It was probably my own guilt about social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics.” Yet unlike most stories that typify the lives of the ”˜help’ in relation to those who employ them, Roma doesn’t define Cleo by her station; it simply presents her life with the beauty and poetry that every life deserves. The film drives home a point about who and what can make an epic story, compelling us to reconsider whose lives we view as important and revisit those that we marginalize due to circumstance or standing.

The ultimate beauty of Roma is that it feels neither like a vessel for a social message nor is it built on the same flawed moral scale that puts a housekeeper on the bottom rungs to produce a ”˜small’ movie, a ”˜gem.’ Roma is Cuarón’s grandest film to date and Cleo is a heroine worthy of movie stardom. We watch her be lover, mother, savior and because of the way Cuarón honors her story we feel the awe that typically accompanies stories of icons and idols, queens and adventurers. It is through Cleo that we process emotion but with a proximity that closes the gap between us. If cinema is an empathy machine, Cuaron is a master who has brought us a far cry from the mammy tropes of Gone with the Wind’s Hattie McDaniel and the marginalization of the caretaker in The Help’s Viola Davis. Roma is Cuarón’s finest work, a gift to the pantheon of great cinema, but in sharing her story with him it is really Libo’s gift to the director and to us. At the close of the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival, a diminutive but graceful women joined Cuarón on stage as she had for most of the film’s screenings around the world, “I never imagined that a film would be based on me,” she said placing her hand in his, “I feel very proud that it’s touching everyone’s heart.”

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani