Roma transports us back to Mexico in the 1970’s in the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City, known as Roma. The story is based on actual experiences of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood. His personal attachment to the story and the ghost-like filming style creates a haunting experience. Shot in black and white, Roma hearkens back to a time, although distant, that was filled with as much transformation, prejudice, and survival as the modern era.
It is interesting to look at the diverse films that Cuarón has made throughout his career. Films like Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity, are just a few in his genre spanning filmography. The films seem so different that they would not be made by the same person, although the tone and seriousness of Cuarón’s style is ever present. In Roma, Cuarón’s personal touch and proximity to the story stands out even more.
“Ninety percent of the scenes that you see in the film come out of my memory. I’m not saying everything in this is linear, but what I did was compress around three years of memory into a narrative of 10 months. But almost every single scene is something I remember, complemented with the real-life Cleo [played in the film by Yalitza Aparicio]. I would talk to her about what she remembered. “1
It is clear that Roma is being told from an honest and stark memory of the storyteller. Cuarón cultivated the relationships between all of the characters in a way that breathes reality and thus makes the story even more impactful.
Right off the bat, Cuarón sets the tone of the film by slowing everything down. We are slowly transported back in time and forced to match the pace of a quiet lonely house as it is being cleaned by Cleo, one of the housemaids, played by Yalitza Aparicio. This pacing helps establish the isolation and roles that will persist throughout the entire film.
The long stationary shots scattered throughout the film reminded me of the style used by Yasujirō Ozu in his films. Cuarón’s use of this pacing helps ground the film in a way that is seldom seen in the majority of mainstream films these days.
I could be mistaken, but it seemed as though there was little music throughout the film. This played a roll similar to the pacing of the film. The absence of music, or at least the lack of ever present music, further establishes the grounded effect.
The film is able to embellish the importance and gravity of the various relationship developments and interactions without the distractions of unnecessary music. This is coming from someone that thoroughly enjoys and appreciates a good score.
What was the deal with the airplanes? Throughout the film there were shots purposefully focusing our attention to passing airplanes. A quick search found some interesting answers.
An interview with Eugenio Caballero, Production Designer, by Slate writer, Inkoo Kang reveals some insight into the use of airplanes. Highlighting the status symbol airplanes represented at the time was important as well as signifying the proximity to the airport.
“That was a moment in which traveling was starting to be accessible to certain people, so it was a status symbol… Also, we wanted to give an urban feeling, because it was an element that really populated the city. La Roma, the neighborhood, is below the air route to the Mexico City Airport, which is not far away from there.”2
In an interview with Cuaron, by Joe Utichi, we get an even greater look into his vision.
“The planes work not so much in a thematic way, but for me they work in different ways. One is the transient situation. When they are there, things keep on going; there’s a universe that is broader than the life that [these characters] have.
On the other hand, they represent the constant presence of a modernity. A technological world that surrounds these characters and is in stark contrast to the shanty towns elsewhere. As humans, we have an amazing arc of technological development, but ethically we fluctuate.
The other, more metaphorical aspect of it is, this is a film that begins by looking at the ground. When the water comes in [in the first shot], you see the sky, but only as a reflection. And at the end, it finishes looking up at the sky. It’s that thing of the impossibility that there’s this metal object flying up there. It is the reflection of that impossibility that can happen when you try to come to terms with life.”3
I enjoy these minor decisions that come from trying to integrate all aspects of the film together in one cohesive piece and message. The attention to detail it requires and thoughtfulness only produces a higher quality film. The attention to detail goes far beyond the airplanes and can be seen throughout the script, set design, and many other facets of the films construction.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón
Written By: Alfonso Cuarón
Runtime: 2h 15m
Distributed by: Netflix
1 – Interview with Alfonso Cuaron by Scott Myers of gointothestory.blcklst.com “https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/interview-written-alfonso-cuar%C3%B3n-5450e7becaf8”
2 – Interview with Eugenio Caballero by Inkoo Kang of Slate.com “https://slate.com/culture/2018/12/roma-production-design-planes-dog-heads.html”
3 – Interview with Alfonso Cuaron by Joe Utichi of deadline.com. “https://deadline.com/2018/08/roma-alfonso-cuaron-venice-film-festival-netflix-interview-1202455061/”