Netflix's 'Roma' Digs Up Alfonso Cuarón's Childhood Pain
By Darby Maloney with Marialexa Kavanaugh & John Horn
To make Roma, Alfonso Cuarón returned to his childhood home, recreating it down to the tiles on the floor and the clothes his family wore. The process was powerful for the Mexican filmmaker -- and painful at times.
Roma, named for the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up, unfolds almost like a dream. It's in black and white, with no musical score. Instead, you hear the sounds of the home, the city, and the world outside the family's front door.
Cuarón was a triple-threat -- writing, directing, and serving as cinematographer on the film, which unfolds over one tumultuous year in the early 1970s. He told The Frame that he wanted the camera to be "almost like a ghost that is observing, looking at the past. ... I wanted the camera to be very steady even when it moves. ... I want it to feel more as if it's haunting you."
Even though it's a personal story, it isn't told from the point of view of young Alfonso. Instead, it focuses on his parents, along with his nanny (named Cleo in the movie). Getting her story right was the most important thing for Cuarón.
"I started talking with the real-life Cleo, because I didn't want it to be about me," Cuarón said. "I witnessed maybe 80 percent of the scenes that are in the film. But the film was not about me, it was about her."
Veracity was critical for him. He cast actors who looked like the real people from his childhood. For Cleo, he cast a young teacher -- the non-professional actor Yalitza Aparicio.
"In my memory, she was this nurturing being, this woman who was always around me, and I think that for the first time I realized that she is a woman," Cuarón said. "She's a woman from a different social class. And from an indigenous background. And I think that tainted the rest of the memories of that period."
Since Cuarón was just a boy at the time, recreating Cleo's own young adulthood in such a visceral way was an exercise in immersing himself in her feelings. The process of mining his and other people's memories of that time put him in a position to see the adults who raised him in a new way. He started to see his parents, whose marriage was breaking apart, from the point of view of an adult.
"If you are thinking about your mom, remembering your mom, you don't really see her as a woman -- you're not thinking her sexual life," Cuarón said. "You don't want to think about those things. You don't want to think too much about whether or not she was lonely. We don't want to think that aspect of our dear ones."
At times, he was in a lousy mood while shooting scenes from his past, Cuarón said. On one day, he was so upset that he needed to step away from the set. After walking through the neighborhood talking with himself, he figured out what was bothering him.
"It's when I realized that I am directing the character of my father leaving the family," Cuarón said. "You know, a person that I have always judged from the outside, for the first time I have to dig into his motivation. ... He was feeling suffocated. And he could not stand there in this family anymore."
Cuarón was able to return to set, conveying that insight to the actor playing his father.
During the making of Roma, signifiers of Cuarón's youth were everywhere. He lived in his actual childhood home and tracked down the family's old furniture, which relatives had dispersed across Mexico.
He also researched with his siblings, comparing memories. He found that his experiences differed from his brothers.
"My younger brother remembered less," Cuarón said. "He was more abstract, and he was a bit confused in different periods. Or my older brother, who had decided to block more. But with my sister, I found that we had a very similar recollection of events. So that was a great tool for me."
Long conversations with his sister led to the excavation of even more memories.
"Memory, like everything, is like a narrative," Cuarón said. "I always see memory as this wall that has a crack. Particularly if you go through something that is painful. It's a wall with a crack. Because the crack is too painful, you create a narrative. And it's a layer of paint. That layer of paint doesn't really cover the crack, so you go with another layer of a different color. And the crack is still seen. You keep on doing layer, after layer, after layer, after layer, after layer of things, in which the crack is still there, but you are unaware of it. You don't see it -- but it's there."
He acknowledges that, despite all his attention to detail, the film could still be tainted by his subjectivity.
"I would never claim that what is in the film is the truth," Cuarón said. "Because probably the truth is hidden under many other layers of paint."
He said it may not always be factual -- but it is truthful.
The timing of Roma felt deeply serendipitous for Cuarón. The process of restaging scenes from his childhood and "recreating a common wound" ended up being timed with the end of his mother's life.
"Everything is kind of in sync." Cuarón said. "It was December  that I felt that my mom's days were ending, so I felt that she had to see a cut of the film. And then a couple of months later she passed. So I was happy that she saw it. That creates this great bond."
He continued to find more wounds following those that had already been opened.
"But by the same token, by digging out into the scars, also you open other wounds," Cuarón said. "You open other wounds that you have to heal. But that's part of what love is about -- it's about healing wounds."
Alfonso Cuarón's movie Roma has been playing in limited theatrical release, but it's available on Netflix as of Friday, Dec. 14.
Note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.
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