Roma Is the Latest Entry in Alfonso Cuarón’s Feminist Oeuvre

The director discusses the absence of men in his early life and his movies.

John Cuneo

A single line of dialogue in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, spoken by a character based on his mother to a character based on his childhood caretaker, lays bare the theme of the entire film. “No matter what they tell you,” the mother says, “we women are always alone.”

By the time she makes this pronouncement, more than an hour and a half in, it feels like an understatement. Set in early-1970s Mexico City and photographed in neorealist black-and-white so crystalline that the picture looks as if it could shatter into a million pieces, the film opens on a frantic scramble in a household based on Cuarón’s. Antonio, the character inspired by Cuarón’s father, returns from his job as a surgeon in his growling, monstrous, regal Ford Galaxie and attempts to maneuver it into a garage far too narrow for its girth, smooshing a pile of fresh dog crap along the way.

The space is so tight that he must slide across the passenger seat to get out of the car and into the house. Shortly after we see him for the first time, we hear him berate his wife, Sofia. She tries unsuccessfully to appease him, even though (as we will later learn) she knows he’s having an affair. His mood worsens further the next day, when he steps in the aforementioned pile; in turn, Sofia trains her ire on the family’s maid and caretaker, Cleo, snapping at her for failing to clean up the mess. Cleo heads out to the driveway and gets busy shoveling shit.

“This is the representation of Antonio, his introduction,” Cuarón told me in December, when I visited him at the Chateau Marmont, in Hollywood. “You don’t see Antonio until the very end of the scene. Everything is introduced through all this ballet of the car parking.”

Cuarón was holed up in one of the hotel’s meticulously shabby-luxe suites, the kind with a funky old kitchen and a weathered icebox, waiting for Roma’s Los Angeles premiere that evening. He was jet-lagged—he had just arrived from London, where he lives—but was nonetheless in a good mood, maybe because Roma was already one of the year’s best-reviewed movies, and seemed well positioned to win a raft of awards. (It has since received Golden Globes for best foreign-language film and best director.) He’s obnoxiously handsome for a guy behind the camera rather than in front of it. Although he is 57, he could pass for a decade younger, if not for his perfectly blended salt-and-pepper hair.

As a boy, Cuarón continued, his family had an old Valiant—a cheap car made by Chrysler for foreign markets—that had bumps and scratches everywhere. But he was fond of it all the same, and was ambivalent when the hulking Galaxie arrived. The Galaxie, which was imported from the U.S. market, was at first glance the more impressive car. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, it has all of this stuff.’ ” But as Cuarón’s parents’ marriage fell apart, it became a flash point. Now the car looms as a metaphor, a symbol of his father’s masculinity (“not eight cylinders but eight testosterone”) and also of his parents’ materialism and class envy. It was a used Ford, which always went unmentioned, and yes, it had all this cool stuff—power steering! air-conditioning!—but the AC was always breaking.

One of the last images in the opening sequence before Cuarón finally gives us a glimpse of Antonio’s face is the car’s hood ornament, a silver crown, coming straight at the camera. “In a way, it’s a penetration. It’s a car that is way too big for that garage,” he said, adding that the marriage has “social pretensions.” Much later in the film, after Antonio abandons the family, Sofia sells the Ford and gets a more modest car that fits in the garage with room to spare.

“She drives with a completely different attitude,” he says. “It’s the first time that you see Sofia with that kind of smile.”

Coursing through all of Cuarón’s films and especially Roma is a sense that the artist who made them loves, even worships, women but is not too sure about men. Though Roma takes place half a century ago, in Mexico, it can easily be read as a critique of Trumpism and #MeToo-era masculinity.

Like plenty of directors, Cuarón tries to avoid connecting the dots in his work, or examining too closely the source of his creative impulses. And yet there is no escaping the fact that his affection for his female characters—and his ambivalence toward the male ones—is encoded in each film he’s made, beginning with his 1991 feature debut, Sólo con Tu Pareja, a modern sex-comedy spin on Don Giovanni, about an advertising copywriter who is simultaneously bedding multiple women (including his neighbors, his boss, and his nurse) until one of them tricks him into thinking he has aids. (It is a movie, Cuarón says, about “an idiot.”) Cuarón made a pair of Hollywood films next: A Little Princess, based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic about a plucky orphan, came out in 1995, and remains particularly dear to Cuarón. He followed it, in 1998, with a Manhattan-set update of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which ostensibly starred Ethan Hawke but in reality revolved around a young Gwyneth Paltrow. Cuarón then went home to Mexico City for 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, about a dying woman’s road trip with two randy, self-involved teenage boys, a film so soaked with hot sex that he was, to put it mildly, a bold choice by Warner Bros. for the third (and best) Harry Potter installment, The Prisoner of Azkaban. (I was briefly on the set during filming, in 2003, and if you watch the film now, you may notice what I did then: Cuarón seems far more interested in Hermione Granger than in anyone else at Hogwarts—including Harry.)

In 2006 came Children of Men, a brutal tale of what Cuarón calls “spiritual sterility,” about a miraculously pregnant woman in a childless future, a dystopia in which men kill for control of the baby and women die trying to protect it. When he thinks about that film now, Cuarón says he can still feel the antipatriarchal rage that drove it. His next film, Gravity, took seven years to arrive, but when it did, it was a global smash, winning an Oscar for best director—making Cuarón the first Latino director to win the award. Gravity is also—if you disregard the mansplaining ghost of George Clooney—perhaps Cuarón’s most overtly feminist film by dint of its conceit and perspective: Sandra Bullock, alone, tumbling through space, willing herself to live.

Which brings us to Roma. At the center of the family depicted in the film stands a quiet young woman who isn’t, technically, a member of the family: Cleo, who is based on Cuarón’s adored real-life nanny and housekeeper, Libo. “I used to call her Mama,” he told me, and then, when he was 5 or 6, “I wanted to marry her.” His father left when he was 9 years old, and his mother, grief-stricken, found herself overwhelmed by the task of acting as the sole parent to four children; Libo, far from her own family in Oaxaca, filled the void.

“There’s an absence in my life, there’s an absence in my mother’s life, and also an absence in Libo’s life,” Cuarón said. In each case, he went on, other people—“men, mainly”—had gone away. This was the one constant: “Women taking charge in raising families. And an absence of men.” Some were physically absent, he says; others were “just not present.”

Cuarón served as his own cinematographer on Roma—the first time he has served as the director of photography for a feature film, and a last-minute solution after his longtime collaborator (and childhood friend) Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki had to leave the film because of a family matter. This wound up working to the film’s advantage, though: There’s no distance between Cuarón and his camera. In stark contrast to the hurtling velocity of his previous film, Gravity, Roma is all stillness and slow pans. Cuarón knows exactly where to look and what he’s trying to see: all the ways he was unaware of his good fortune and of Libo’s role in maintaining it.

To hear Cuarón tell it, the film is his penance to Libo. “I felt I owe something to her,” he said, “almost like owing an explanation.” That has meant reckoning with the truth of his upbringing, his entitlement, the fact that he was empowered, as a child, “to give orders.” If he’d simply revisited his own tale, albeit with more attention to Libo’s life, he’d have risked continuing his solipsism. Instead, the character based on Cuarón is barely on-screen at all. The family has three boys, and it’s never entirely clear which of the elder two is meant to be Cuarón. To make the movie faithfully, he had several long conversations with Libo about their past, and he was captivated by her stories about who she was when she wasn’t his caretaker—“her social life outside the bubble,” he says. “My bubble.”

At one point in Roma, Cleo goes on a date with a handsome, driven young man who is poor like her; after they’ve slept together, Cuarón shows Cleo in her slip, lying modestly under the covers, watching her lover demonstrate his martial-arts virtuosity, his postcoital penis flopping everywhere as he spins and kicks. Like almost everything else we see, this is based on a real moment from Libo’s life. Cuarón said he wanted the young man’s nakedness to convey both his weakness—his “wounded soul”; the ways Mexico’s class system and rural poverty have stunted his life—and his self-assured machismo. “This kid bragging about his athletic skill, bragging about his own nakedness. It’s very vain,” Cuarón said.

As Cleo watches him, she stifles a giggle, a sweet detail but one that introduces a hint of tension to the scene; this is not, we sense, a young man who will respond well to being laughed at. Before long, Cleo discovers she’s pregnant with his child; moments after she tells him the news, he slips out of the movie theater where they are sitting and doesn’t return. We see him twice more in the film. The first time, he threatens to kill Cleo if she comes looking for him again. The second time, he points a gun at her, her water breaks, and tragedy follows.

In each of Cuarón’s three most recent films, a lost child haunts the main character. He jokes that this only proves “how little imagination I have.” Fair enough—dead children are often (too often) deployed in movies to set a plot in motion, or to excuse a character’s otherwise inexcusable behavior. For Cuarón, though, the death of a child is less a plot device than a running metaphor for despair. In Children of Men, one man’s grief over his lost child epitomizes the misery of a childless society—“an existence without hope,” Cuarón told me. He wasn’t interested in examining or explaining why this mass sterility happened so much as he was interested in portraying the interconnectedness of motherhood and faith in the future. Gravity’s true subject is a woman so crushed by the death of her child that she’s on the brink of letting go and drifting off into the blackness. And in Roma, the lost child is literal, palpable—the subject of the movie’s most heartbreaking sequence, the gut punch after 90 minutes of paper cuts.

As we continued our conversation, Cuarón sipped hot green tea and refilled a glass of water from a sweaty carafe. The sound of someone plunking into a pool outside drifted through an open window. I pressed him again as to why he’d written a child’s death into three straight scripts, and he grinned and moved to lie down on the couch. “Take your notepad,” he said, “and I’m gonna lay here.” When he was writing Children of Men, he had a son in his 20s—Jonás, who is now a filmmaker, and who co-wrote Gravity. Cuarón has since had two more children. That must be part of the explanation, he reasons now: As a parent, he knows that losing a child is the ultimate fear.

“If I get Darwinian,” he says, his face brightening far more than most people’s do when they say Darwinian, “hope is nothing but the possibility of our species to keep on going. If you cut out that biological link, you’re just cutting all of that. If you translate that into emotional terms, it’s that exactly. That’s hope.”

Roma ends with a scene of domestic tranquility—the fatherless Cuarón family, gathered around the television to watch an episode of The Porky Pig Show. Some time has passed since Cleo’s lover abandoned her, and the family—now numbering four kids, three women (including Sofia’s mother), and no men—has just returned home from a trip to the beach, one that would have ended in another tragedy had Cleo not saved the day. “Everybody’s so excited to be back home,” Cuarón said to me, narrating a bit of the scene, “and they’re talking about how much they love Cleo; they love her so much that they want to visit her town in Oaxaca.”

Even though the movie was filmed in black-and-white, the scene is so warm as to appear incandescent. Years from this moment, Cuarón tells me, the woman whom Cleo is based upon will become pregnant again and this time her baby will survive; she and her daughter, now grown herself, still live in that same home, the one where Cuarón was raised, the one he re-created for Roma. It’s theirs now as much as his. It was hers then, too—except when it wasn’t. As the movie winds to a close, the women and children laugh at the TV, and then the kids ask Cleo to get them some snacks. She leaves the room and heads downstairs to prepare their food.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline “Women and Children First.”