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Alfonso Cuarón Is Still on an International Oscar Campaign: ‘Subtitles Are Not Going to Hurt You’

The filmmaker's support of "Le Pupille" and Alice Rohrwacher is the latest step in his crusade to bring a global reach to awards season.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 13: (L-R) Alice Rohrwacher and Alfonso Cuarón attend the tastemaker screening of Disney's “Le Pupille” at DGA Theater in Los Angeles on February 13, 2023. "Le Pupille" is streaming now on Disney+. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Disney+)

Alice Rohrwacher and Alfonso Cuarón

Getty Images for Disney+


When Alfonso Cuarón hit the awards campaign trail for “Roma” in 2019, he turned it into a larger mission. “I grew up watching foreign-language films,” the Mexican filmmaker said as he won the Oscar for a category then known as Best Foreign Language Film, and his speech went on to cite movies like “The Godfather and “Citizen Kane” as examples.

Message received: The next year, the Oscars went global. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said adieu to the word “foreign” and changed the name of the category for Best International Feature Film. A few months later, “Parasite” became the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture. While the Academy continues to work on globalizing the Oscar race, Cuarón’s own crusade to support non-English language cinema continues as executive producer of nominee“Le Pupile.”

Cuarón played a critical role in garnering Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher her first nomination this year. The Cannes-acclaimed director of understated and ethereal dramas like “The Wonders” and “Happy as Lazzaro,” the festival circuit has celebrated Rohrwacher’s work for years. However, her new 37-minute short, a nominee for Best Live-Action Feature, has gained more global attention than any of her features thanks to its worldwide distribution on Disney+. That happened when Cuarón entered a deal with the streaming to curate a series of shorts about holidays. He has since enlisted directors such as David Lowery for upcoming installments, but Rohrwacher was his first call.

“When you propose stuff to filmmakers usually they say, ‘That’s a great idea, let me think about it,’ and then you never hear from them again,” Cuarón said in a recent phone interview. “I thought she would be one more filmmaker who says that. Then the next morning she was calling me with these ideas.”

Rohrwacher conceived of “Le Pupille” as a playful story set at a Catholic orphanage in the midst of WWII. It’s there that a harsh mother superior (Rohrwacher’s sister Alba) forces the young girls to participate in a nativity scene while enforcing strict behavioral expectations. Their resolve is tested when the school receives a cake as a special gift and the movie becomes a lighthearted tale of religious rebellion.

The movie has a gentle touch like all of Rohrwacher’s work, with deeper undercurrents about coming of age within the constraints of tradition. “I don’t have a Catholic family, but I come from a Catholic country,” Rohwacher said over Zoom. “The biggest visual impressions I have in my life — and this respect I have toward images — is filled with religious sentiment, even if personally I am not Catholic. I am linked to a spiritual world because I tell stories through images.”

Cuarón was keen on proving a greater platform to Rohrwacher’s work as an extension of his advocacy for international cinema. “I think the cultural aspect is more important — to be exposed to different cultures, and different cinematic approaches,” he said. “Each culture offers a different and very specific eye into the approach of making cinema. The films of Alice are unquestionably Italian. They’re grounded in a very specific cultural context to create fables, almost like psalms, in which working-class people are usually involved. With that is this immense sense of the human possibility of transcending normal perceptions. It’s fantastic.”

Le Pupille

“Le Pupille”


American subscribers to Disney+ may be surprised to find that when they pull up “Le Pupille,” the movie automatically begins playing in an English-language dub. Rohrwacher defended the decision. “The dubbing is linked to a young audience who can’t read,” she said, noting that the short was dubbed in many other languages as well. “When we were shown all the languages from all over the world in which this film was being translated, I was really moved. I couldn’t believe it because it’s incredible to get to these remote places.”

Cuarón was more conflicted. “If that’s going to help for films to be seen around the world, OK, but I find very, very far from ideal,” he said. He was adamant that “Roma” would never receive an official dub.

‘Look, if you’re an adult, reading subtitles are not going to hurt you, unless you need to move your lips when you’re reading and will end up very tired at the end of the movie,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I grew up with subtitles, but it’s so great to listen to the specific sound and music of every language.”

Despite his reservations, Cuarón has embraced the opportunities of the streaming landscape many times over. In addition to the Netflix production of “Roma” and the Disney+ deal that supported “Le Pupille,” he recently wrapped production on the miniseries “Disclaimer” for AppleTV+.

“There are pros and cons to streaming,” he said. “It has gentrified cinema in a very dangerous way, which is the way of the algorithm. That is about product, it’s not about discoveries.” However, he remained heartened by their global reach.

“Because of the worldwide nature of many of these platforms, it has created films and even shows in different countries that have shown they travel very well,” he said. “That makes me very optimistic. That means audiences around the world are very open to be exposed to films and shows from other countries. They can watch them very comfortably.”

Rohrwacher’s own global profile will continue expanding as her international co-production “La Chimera” — starring Josh O’Connor as a British graverobber — seems poised to make the cut at Cannes in May. (In the premature predictions department,  she may become the first filmmaker to win an Oscar and a Palme d’Or in the same calendar year.)

Rohrwacher, who lives in a rural Italian village for much of the year, said she was keen on sticking to her roots. “When I think of a story, I think of it set in Italy because I’m so passionate about the landscape, the history, the art, the culture,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have a traveler’s curiosity. Up until now, the stories I have seen and transformed into film were linked to this country.”

Even as her work travels, she added, it would always maintain a specific Italian character. “I come from a volcanic village,” she said. “Every time you grab a stone from the ground, you can see many layers from over the years. I’ve always had this idea that I’m living on a layer, but underneath there are so many others. This stratification is linked to my country.”

Rohrwacher isn’t the only filmmaker who brings an international flair to her category: All but one of the nominees for Best Live Action Film are in languages other than English and none of the filmmakers are American. “There is real progress going on,” Cuarón said. “I really believe that in film, it’s not about the language that’s spoken. Film is the language.”

“Le Pupille” is available to stream on Disney+.

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