The “Roma” Oscar campaign came to New York last night with a screening and reception that included Michael Moore, Julian Schnabel, Gay Talese, Nick Pileggi and many others, at the Whitby Hotel. Director Alfonso Cuaron– already winner of an Oscar for directing “Gravity” (and issuing in an era of Mexican directing winners)–brought his star Yalitza Aparicio and Gabriela Rodriguez.
“Roma” is a masterpiece in a season of foreign language films that are all exceptional (Capernaum, Cold War, Never Look Away). On critics’ minds, will its nominations be for Best Foreign Language Film or a straight Best Picture? But that’s not what’s on this director’s mind. Cuaron has turned his talents to a black & white, acutely detailed, Spanish and indigenous language realization of a key figure in his childhood, a maid he renamed Clio who came to live with his family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. A mother figure to him, from a disadvantaged class, he asks himself, what does she represent in the world of now?
“Roma,” says Cuaron, honors a sense of memory to form a narrative that builds upon narrative. He wrote his script hoping a narrative would build. Thinking more practically, the producer Gabriela Rodriguez told a post-screening crowd that included they had to borrow furniture from family members to honor Alfonso’s memory, to get the apartment just right, and recreate Mexico City in 1970, which they could do from photos; many iconic places had been damaged by a 1985 earthquake. And the cars! In one hilarious recurring image the family Galaxy fits into its spot like a hand in a tight glove. No one can steer it straight into the narrow parking space, laden with dog shit.
Clio was cast after the film team had met 3,000 women from the far reaches of Mexico. From a town 4 hours away from the nearest city, Yalitza Aparicio had never heard of Alfonso Cuaron and at first refused to audition fearing this was a scam for human trafficking. When finally she was persuaded, she never saw a script but was told her lines each day before shooting. In a scene when she tells her lover that she is pregnant, she had no idea what he would answer back. And the crew was clueless too. Only Cuaron who did his own camera work, knew what would happen. After this role, Yalitza Aparicio has traveled far.
Cuaron has, too. “Roma” shimmers in a way most American movies this year just aspire to. And it has lots of in jokes, too– look for a nod to “Gravity” that almost no one is mentioning. Cuaron has two feet on Earth but always an eye to the skies!