16 Jan 2019 | Scott Johnson | The Hollywood Reporter
Alfonso Cuaron’s uncle was a communist.
He also was a meticulous record keeper. Mexico City, where they both lived, was, in early 1971, frequently the site of violent clashes between students and government forces.
While visiting him one day in the summer of that year, Cuaron found a startling black-and-white photograph among his uncle’s newspaper clippings. The image showed a terrified young man in a white shirt running, looking back over his shoulder at a group of men chasing him with a bamboo stick. From above, several frightened onlookers watched from the windows of a furniture store.
“He’s unsure how this is going to end,” Cuaron recalls of the man in the image.
The uncle explained to the 10-year old Cuaron that the people being beaten, and sometimes killed, were students, just like him, only a few years older. Cuaron recognized himself, or a future version of himself, in the fleeing man. “My little middle-class bubble burst,” he says on a late-December walk through Roma Sur, the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. “I realized there was a way bigger bubble, one that was more complex.”
That image, which gestated in Cuaron’s memory for nearly half a century, emerges fully formed in Roma, the ode to his childhood nanny, Liboria Rodriguez — or Libo — that will almost certainly make history as Netflix’s first best picture Oscar nominee when selections are announced Jan. 22. It’s one of the film’s tensest moments, the visual apotheosis of the personal and political stories that informed Cuaron’s young life. “[Discovering that photo] was a very specific event in my life because, throughout the years, because of that, there was more conversation,” explains the director, 57.
While Roma centers mainly on the life and experiences of Cleo — the character based on the real-life Libo — the political tumult that swirled around Cuaron as a boy forms a near-constant, if largely unexplained, backdrop.
“It was overwhelming,” he says. “The political atmosphere in Mexico was very claustrophobic. It was this atmosphere ruled by an ideological Mexicanismo.”
Roma is set in the final years of the so-called Mexican Miracle, a decades-long period of strong economic growth that saw the ascent of middle-class families like Cuaron’s (his father was a doctor specializing in nuclear medicine).
Inequality, then as now, was pervasive. Many parts of the society were split along ethnic lines, the lingering effects of a caste system that dated to the colonial era. “Roma shows how much the middle classes were complicit with a deeply unequal system,” says Mauricio Tenorio, director of the Katz Center for Mexican Studies at the University of Chicago, “how quiet and tamed and obedient we were.”
Mexico was then, in another sense, somewhat like the United States today — an ideologically divided land simmering with forces of autocracy, populism and nascent rebellion. Cuaron’s own family was cleaved along ideological fault lines, with one side leaning far to the right — armed, he says bitterly, “with the patronizing language of decency.”
They were dismissive of the masses, largely unseen and unheard, who labored to make the privileged lives their employers enjoyed that much more comfortable. This side of his family also was vehemently opposed to the large protests that had begun sweeping the country in the early 1960s and which accelerated in the spring of 1968, as students — “those horrible students,” some right-wing members of Cuaron’s family told him — demanded more democratic reforms.
As a child, Cuaron had attended one such demonstration, a silent protest in which the only sounds he remembers were the marchers’ footsteps. “I remember stomping my feet,” he says quietly, gently mimicking the sounds with his hands. While those demonstrations predate the events of Roma by a few years, they set the stage for the tumult and carnage Cleo witnesses.
As a reporter in Mexico for many years in the 2000s, I covered many of the same social and political forces on display in the film — urban elitism, the exploitation of the indigenous rural population and impunity for the powerful. These tensions continue to shape the lives of Mexicans. Yalitza Aparicio, the 26-year-old first-time actress and former schoolteacher from Oaxaca who plays Cleo, says the “experiences of the students in the film were very close to my own.”