After visiting the lonely reaches of space, Alfonso Cuarón has turned his camera on his own childhood. The black-and-white movie Roma, from the director of Gravity, is much anticipated, and will have its premiere today as part of the official competition at the 75th edition of the Venice Film Festival.
Among the 21 movies that are vying for the Golden Lion is Nuestro tiempo (known in English as, Where Life is Born), the fifth movie from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, who on this occasion has chosen to make his debut in front of the camera, appearing alongside his wife and children in the film.
‘Roma’ was shot on 65mm film, with no script and based on specific requests from Cuarón during conversations with the technical team and the actors
Roma has been a well-kept secret until today. The director recently stated in Mexico that the production of the movie, which will be released in December in cinemas and on streaming service Netflix, was “quite discrete.” That was an understatement for a process that saw a process shot on 65mm film, with no script and based merely on specific requests from Cuarón during long conversations with the technical team and the actors. Under the terms of his contract, only the financiers of the movie had access to the screenplay that he had written.
The movie tells the story of a middle-class family in the Mexican capital ahead of the Corpus Christi massacre
This process was a headache for many. Eugenio Caballero, the multi-award winning art designer, was charged with recreating the Mexico of the early 1970s that survived in the head of the director of movies such as Children of Men. The designer only found out what the full story was once the shoot had begun and the sets were complete.
“What we did was talk about a lot of specific lists,” Caballero explained in January of this year at a conference with students at the cinema school were Cuarón learned his trade. The lists that he was referring to were basically the memories that the director had of his childhood.
Roma, a name that refers to the central neighborhood in Mexico City, tells the story of a middle-class family in the Mexican capital ahead of the Corpus Christi massacre, a student protest in 1971 that left around 120 people dead after an army group opened fire on them. “Eighty percent of this is from my memory, from events that I saw,” the director has said of the film.
The production of ‘Roma’ actually took twice as long as special-effects fest ‘Gravity’
To relive those days, Cuarón built a replica of his childhood home, bringing in items of furniture from five different states. Cuarón told a group of journalists that his siblings took several minutes to realize that the people in a photo on the set were not their younger selves, but actually actors in costume.
Mexico City is also shown in the movie as it was back then, a bold venture given how much has changed there since the earthquakes in 1985 and 2017. The director does so using wide open shots, avoiding the tricks of smaller productions. A sequence on Insurgentes avenue, which is the longest in Mexico, shows the América cinema and dozens of stores that today only live on in photos. The filmmaker took advantage of the technical advances from big productions in order to bring the city of his childhood back to life. In fact, the production of Roma actually took twice as long as special-effects fest Gravity.
A real-life affair
Meanwhile, for Nuestro Tiempo, Carlos Reygadas opted to take the lead role after being unsatisfied with the actors he had rehearsed and even started to shoot with. He shares the screen with his real-life wife, Natalia López, as well as his children Rut and Elezar, who already appeared in his movie Post Tenbras Lux, the film that won him the Best Director award at the 2012 Cannes Festival.
This time around, Reygadas focuses on his marriage via a character called Juan, who rears livestock at a fighting bull ranch in Tlaxcala.
The family harmony is shattered when his wife, Ester, has an affair with an American cowboy. For nearly three hours the couple explores their limits as they attempt to have an open relationship. “Can a couple emerge from a situation like this one without suffering irreparable harm?” asks Reygadas, who uses the film to explore themes of possession, loyalty and fidelity in modern relationships.
Those who are close to the director have confessed that the script borrows more from the real life of the director than Reygadas and his team are prepared to admit.
English version by Simon Hunter.