“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white childhood remembrance of things past, opens with a mesmerizing four-minute credit sequence: the mopping of a courtyard. The flow of foamy water establishes a rhythm as well as a cleansing metaphor about life and memory.
“And that flow started to dictate the other stuff,” said Cuarón, who served as editor with co-editor Adam Gough. “We went from one thing to the other, sculpting as we were going, moment by moment, following the flow.
“But I had to be discriminating because I have such long heads and such long tails, and I’m talking sometimes two minutes longer than what you see in the film. It was the dance of how far I take this versus how early or late I start these things.”
Cuarón meticulously recreated his childhood through recollections of his family, his house, and his neighborhood in Mexico City during the turbulence of 1970 and ’71. Yet he chose to follow domestic worker Cleo (played by Best Actress contender Yalitza Aparicio) with his roving camera. Her affectionate devotion to the family during its marital crisis overlaps with her own personal problems and social unrest in the city.
“The personal and social go hand in hand,” added Cuarón. “And also the comment on two different emotional scars: the one that the family is going through and the scar that we share as a society.”
The director wrote the script as a stream of consciousness experience and then shot his movie in continuity in a further improvisational manner. Only a handful of people were privy to reading the script. Cuarón allowed whatever came to mind to enter the drama. “But when I finished the whole thing, I trusted that the narrative muscle that I have built throughout my career would take care of it,” he said.
“I allowed each scene to be as long as what felt right. Usually I’m very strict about page count and timings. Here I didn’t care about that because we were dealing with so much randomness. I never gave instructions to the actors as a group but separately, and most of those indications were contradictory. I wanted accidents. I would not cut, I just let it roll.”
Still, the four-hour cut had to be trimmed, and Gough, who wasn’t allowed to read the script until after it was shot, offered a uniquely fresh perspective, helping bring the final version to a more acceptable 135 minutes.
Photo by Carlos Somonte
“For me, it was an interesting experience not knowing what was happening in the story until the third time I was reviewing the footage,” Gough said. “So I struggled to analyze it and had to re-watch it. I just fell into the flow of this movie and let the emotions roll over me.
“There were times when the dailies would come in and I was just sitting at my Avid in tears, going through all the characters in emotional bunches sometimes. So I would have to take breaks and come back to the footage. But I came out of it with this complete emotional response to the footage.”
A difficult scene editorially was the one where a distraught Cleo tells employer Sofia (Marina de Tavira) that she might be pregnant, fearing the lost of her job. “Ultimately, it was just having such good quality footage,” said Gough. “There were 60 takes of that shot and four hours of coverage just for the master shot. From take to take, we had strong possibilities, but there were subtle options. It was just refining to get the most honest moment.”
Cleo’s frenzied hospital delivery scene, in which she loses her baby, was done as a single shot and they got it in one take. Cuarón staged the run through with the professional doctors, nurses, and administrators to get the procedure right, but used a double for Aparicio. And when the actress shot the scene, she had no idea how it was going to end. “We kept the tail running with doctors and nurses talking about stuff, and she was crying and crying, and it broke my heart seeing her crying,” Cuarón said. “And I yelled, ‘Cut,’ and I went to hold her. We were capturing her real reaction to that moment.”
“We’re not trying to make comments, we’re trying to keep the emotions flowing for the audience to be on this journey,” added Gough. “And without any score, there is nothing to prompt you.”
Emotional prompting aside, what about the presence of Cuarón as the implied narrator? After all, Paco (Carlos Peralta), his alter-ego, is saved from drowning by Cleo. That would tie together the flowing water in the opening with the heroic rescue from the strong ocean current at the end.
“Memory is the implied narrator,” argued the director.