“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.”
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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.)