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?”
Read the full interview at https://lwlies.com/interviews/alfonso-cuaron-roma/