The Quiet Film Making Great Waves–Is Cuarón’s Roma Set To Be The Most Unconventional Oscar Win Ever?
If Roma were to win Best Picture at the Oscars it would be the first film in a foreign language ever to do so. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is based on his childhood memories and centered around the women that brought him up. Deeply personal, Cuarón not only directs the film, but also wrote the screenplay, shot the film and edited it, ensuring his full creative control at all times. The film covers a snapshot of one family’s life in Mexico in the early 70s. With a background of political unrest and turbulence filling the streets, we watch as behind closed doors this family faces their own struggles. The audience is brought in to the world through long still shots and slow pans, creating a slowed down pace that encourages the audience to seep in all the details. The layering of everyday images from caged birds, to their restless dog jumping at the gates of the house to the streets filled with cars and marches, captures the busy city life. The camera work is remarkable, most notably with one shot towards the end of the film. In a recent roundtable BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee, a competitor for Best Picture at the upcoming awards, asked Cuarón how he created this shot before shaking his hand and remarking ‘I’ve never seen a shot like that before’. Indeed the world Cuarón conjures us quite a feat, especially when you also consider the decision to shoot in black and white and without a score.
However it is these choices that make the world more vivid. The score instead makes way for the cacophony of noises and the black and white grading leads the gaze to spread over the whole screen. Then, breathing life in to this is the most wonderful and naturalistic acting. The cast is a brilliant ensemble with a real chemistry between them – you really believe they are family. The children aggravate each other and their mother Sofia walks the tight rope of trying to keep things together for her family whilst finding ways to vent her emotions as her world shifts. However the undisputed star of the film, through who’s eyes observe this landscape, is the housemaid Cleo. She is the backbone of the family, always in the background, cleaning up after them, fetching drinks, carrying their bags, making sure Borras their dog doesn’t escape. But she is also so much more than this. She has a tenderness and warmth that she bestows on each member of the family in intimate moments - lying with the youngest out in the sun, gently coaxing another to wake up and singing another to sleep.
Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo brings such a wondrous and open quality to her that is compelling to watch. Having no prior acting experience she has the monumental ability, so elusive to so many, to ‘just be’ in front of the camera. There is no excess emotion layered on to any of the lines, giving her character and the audience space to absorb the events in their own time. Echoing the cinematography, Yalitza’s performance contains a sustained quality that carries through the film. Unlike most characters we see on our screens that deal with some kind of trauma, conflict, or even mundanity, she has no outbursts, and never loses her temper or casts judgement on others. She contains her emotions focusing on the everyday until the dramatic climax of the film where she lets it out - in just three lines.
While Yalitza brings vulnerability and openness to the screen, Marina brings a harder edge to her character. Having worked in the theatre before, Marina brought more experience to set and it is wonderful to hear the actresses talk about what they learnt from each other. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight Marina reveals ‘I learned a lot. She has a beautiful way of being herself, her beautiful self…and for me she was always Cleo.” Yalitza, when asked what she learned from Marina replies “I learned a lot actually. I learned everything. I particularly learned that she has that very peaceful way of being able to exist in front of the camera. So I just watched and observed her because I get very very nervous in front of a camera. And I learned a way to stay calm and be able to present to the cameras.” Both performances have been widely acknowledged and Yalitza has now become the first Indigenous Mexican woman ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, whilst Marina has received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
The stellar performances are no doubt in part down to Cuarón’s unusual directing techniques. Once Yalitza was cast, he cast her real life best friend Nancy García García to play her best friend, Adela, in the film. As the first characters to speak, the film starts with a very underplayed and natural rhythm, absolutely avoiding anything forced. However Cuarón did not stop here. Interestingly, whilst he had an completely clear vision of what the film was to be, he afforded no one else the same insight – neither the cast nor the crew could see the screenplay and were only given the scenes for the day ahead. Undoubtedly this creates the immediacy and real emotion within the film. Unlike most projects where actors are able to use all their resources from the script to create a character, these characters were built moment to moment, much like people in real life. This coupled with the shooting of the film in sequential order meant that the actors really were playing out these lives. Indeed on reflection, there was a sense from all of the actors of being focused solely on the tasks or objectives right in front of them. The character arc is not a prior decision but instead simply becomes clear through the editing together of the scenes.
Continuing the theme of breaking convention, Roma’s release has also been highly unusual for a director with Cuarón’s credentials. With the rights being bought by Netflix, Roma had a short theatrical release before being available to all Netflix subscribers to stream from the comfort of their homes. Asked about this decision Cuarón stated that his film was created for the big screen however more important than this was for this story to be seen by as many people as possible. If Roma were to win, it would make history in yet another way by becoming the first Netflix film ever to do so – cementing the changing landscape of film distribution.
Irrespective of the conclusion of the awards ceremony, Roma is a wonderful film with a strong heart encapsulated by the gentleness of Cleo. There are many reasons to see this film, but if for nothing else I encourage you to see it just to meet Cleo.
Nominations that Roma has received for the Oscars 2019:
Lead Actress - Yalitza Aparicio
Supporting Actress - Marina de Tavira
Director - Alfonso Cuarón
Original Screenplay - Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematography - Alfonso Cuarón
Best Foreign Language Film
Sound Editing - Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay
Production Design - Eugenio Caballero, Bábara Enríquez