“Roma” is the name of the neighborhood in Mexico City where Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuarón “Gravity,” among others) grew up. Now Cuaron’s luscious black-and-white Spanish-language film of that name is on the Oscar track, appearing last Friday as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival. The film received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and lives up to its hype.
Before the film’s Friday evening screening, Cuarón brought on the stage of Alice Tully Hall a tiny 80something woman, who he introduced as Libo, “She’s the woman who raised me and the inspiration for the film,” he said. (A tribute to her also appears in the end credits of film.)
“Roma” is Cuarón’s intimate and personal memory piece about growing up in a middle-class district of Mexico called Roma in 1970 and 71, as seen through the daily life of the family servant and housekeeper Cleo, played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, an elementary school teacher in real life. Through the relationship of Cleo and Sofia, her employer (veteran access Marina De Tavira), the film is also a feminist ode and celebrates the solidarity and strength of women and the way in which they support and nurture one another, especially when men inevitably let them down.
On the red carpet Cuarón was overheard telling a reporter that he had no political agenda in making the film. “I think that what is clear is the human experience is the same wherever you are.” As for the artificial artifice of borders, real or metaphorical, Cuaron said, “Borders should be a celebration of the different colors humanity’s made off, it should not be about divisions.”
Earlier in the day, at the press conference, Cuarón said while making the film he wanted to “surrender to memory” while at the same time providing “a meaningful experience for the audience”so they can “participate in the experience of their own memory.”
The director said he also wanted “to honor time” and its flow. That’s why we see Cleo washing the floor in real time, especially the cobble stones at the beginning of the film. And why when Cleo goes to the bathroom the camera waits for her outside the door to emphasize and honor the flow of time and its rhythm as filtered through the director’s childhood memories.
On the red carpet, I spoke to Marina De Taviro, who plays the addled and stressed wife and mother Sofia, who comes to lean on Cleo during a family crisis and who comes to discover her own personal strength as a result of that relationship and support.
Earlier at the press conference it was mentioned the actors did not see a script. On the red carpet I asked the actress, who was wearing beautiful and large emerald and diamond earrings, what it was like working without a screenplay?
“They had the script perfectly written but we didn’t have (it). Nobody had it on the set, only Alfonso… I think this was an incredible gift that he gave us because he made our characters discover what was going to happen to them as the way we as human beings discover life… It surprises us and we shot chronologically, so it was as if we were living life as it is.”
During shooting the film how autobiographical did she feel it was for the director?
“I sensed that (it was). He said that this came from his memoirs but also from the memories of Libo — Cleo who she is based upon — I could sense that it was really personal from the way that he was talking to me, from the way he was talking about Sofia. He didn’t say she’s my mother but I could sense it because he spoke of her (the character) with so much knowledge of her life and of what she was going through … and I had to put that out of my mind because if I was thinking every day this was Alfonso’s mother I would just get really nervous, so I knew it and then I just put it away.”
You’re a very experienced actor working a lot of non-actors who had never been in front of the camera, especially co-star Yalitza Aparicio. What challenging was that?
“Alfonso told me this is really going to be difficult for you because you have these technique, and I’m basically a theater actress. He told me, you’re going to have to forget all that you know so you can just deal with the way that they work because they work in a different way, they don’t analyze, they don’t tend to interpret the theme, they just flow as if it was life. The first days were really difficult, but then we started just to understand each other and I think it was amazing. It really transformed me as an actress and the way that I think about acting.”
Historically did you learn anything about Mexico from your own childhood memories? Also what lessons or meaning do you think the movie will hold for audiences?
“I was a child in the 80’s, not the 70’s, and this really brought back my memory about the way my childhood was. And I really hope we change the way we see family, break the traditionally way of looking at family, mom, dad and kids and that if that breaks we’re not a family… Who makes the difference? Maybe it’s the other women who help us (and create our family?”
How did you see your character evolving?
“She goes through a process… Her relationship with Cleo initially is as employer and employee and it’s also family; Cleo’s raising her children and loving them and I think she realizes that at the end that she knows that Cleo’s going to be the one she can count on even though she come from different worlds; Cleo comes form indigenous Mexican world and she works for her, but she’s going to be the most importance accomplice of her life.”