There is a key character in the film Rome It does not appear in the credits and appears only on the screen for a moment. Above all we feel it, but we do not see it. However, it leaves a deep emotional imprint in the film. This is a sweet potato seller, a character in the large community of street vendors in Mexico City. From him we hear the distinctive call on several occasions throughout the film: a whistle of steam that emits a sharp sound that fades, little by little, both in tone and volume. It is perhaps one of the saddest sounds I have ever heard; it evokes desire and pain, missed opportunities, lost love.
"There is always a feeling of loneliness that accompanies this whistle," says Alfonso Cuarón, who wrote and directed the critically acclaimed film. Cuarón, 57, is with me in a van stopped in the middle of Mexico City traffic. The director, now residing in London, has returned to the Mexican capital to make a short promotional trip in his film, which seems to be a favorite of the Oscars. It takes me an hour to talk Rome and he teaches me about the colony he grew up in, also called Rome. In the film, the sweet potato salesman has a company: the doorman who rings the bell, the penknife that sounds like a flute, the honey salesman who screams like someone calling a lost dog. These calls are part of the chaotic auditory landscape of Mexico City, well known to current residents as they were in the '70s, the era in which the events represented Rome.
The film, based on the childhood of Cuarón, deals with the relationship between a maid and her owners, a Mexican middle-class family that disintegrates. But the film also deals with a place, the city of Mexico itself, in a convulsive moment in its modern history. Rome Unleash debates on classism, the differences between racial groups and the aspirations of a developing country. Much of the film has been recorded indoors, but even when the camera is inside the house, the sounds of the city follow it. During some silent scenes, the buzzard away from the traffic and clams, the dog barks and the voices of the peddlers manage to enter, as if they wanted to remind us that this huge city, a growing monster, besieged by the other side of the door. As if he wanted to remind us also that he is a character who, due to his merits, requires respect. I expose this idea to Cuarón to see if I understood correctly. "That was the intention, all the cities have their own soundscape," says the director. Although the film has the family at the center of the story, the director comments, it also deals with the broader social context. "The starting point was personal injuries, relatives, but also other injuries that I shared collectively with the whole country and, perhaps, with humanity," he explains. The presence of the city is fundamental. "
The driver of the van goes to the colony of Rome. Inside the vehicle bubble, the noise of the city seems a distant murmur. "What a beautiful colony", says Cuarón, and indicates a set of buildings with touches of " noveau art is art deco. "Look at the architecture, there are areas with trees, here in Mexico City!" He exclaims: the colony was developed largely in the early twentieth century and was designed for the elite of the city. There were huge buildings in tree-lined walks, and leafy places and parks were created to emulate the style of Western European capitals. The popularity of the richest area began to disappear in the mid-twentieth century, when many residents moved away from the city center or from the suburbs. The bourgeoisie has replaced the neighborhood, says Enrique Krauze, historian and writer. "In 1970 and 1971, the years in which Cuarón recreates Rome, the neighborhood was a real cohabitation laboratory, not idealized, with its prestigious schools, cabarets and brothels ", writes Krauze in an article on the social and cultural relevance of Rome published in New York Times.
A summit of the bourgeois class
Cuarón lived in a street in the area known as the South of Rome. When it was small, southern Rome was less prosperous and consumed than the other half of the colony, the Rome of the North. People despised the first area, which was called "the snoring". I say to the director I lived north of Rome. "The best place," he says, perhaps with an ironic touch. Rome was strongly affected by the earthquake of 1985, which accelerated the exit of wealthy people and the disintegration of the neighborhood. Despite everything, during the last decade the area has recovered and has become, once again, a summit of the bourgeois class and in a trendy place, with a booming social life and coffee, art boutique, restaurants and bars.
With this rebirth, the boundaries that distinguish northern Rome from the south of Rome have become blurred, even if not completely. "I think Southern Rome is even more daring," says Cuarón, who adds that he still has many family activities and craft workshops. We park a few steps from Avenida Insurgentes, a large public thoroughfare that separates the southern Rome of the Countess, the neighboring colony. The van's doors open and we are faced with a chaotic landscape of street vendors and traffic. We walk along the sidewalk, full of merchants selling cell phones and cheap jewelry, as well as sweets and sunglasses, manicures and shoe polishing services. Cuarón stops at the Avenidas Insurgentes and Baja California intersections, where pedestrian rivers, private vehicles, public transport and street vendors meet. A replica of this intersection appears in the film when the main character, Cleo, runs after the children.
The intersection is calmer and tidier, on the screen, because it is the way Cuarón remembers it. He says that in his youth he was a place full of aspirations; He tried to reflect on this spirit through the business shown in the film, as a travel agency and the office of a veterinarian. "Surely it was more expensive to bring your dog to the hospital than your children," says the director raising his voice, almost ready to scream in the middle of the crash. This place was the dream of cosmopolitanism and modernity that Mexico began to experience during this period. "On the other hand, now there is an urban turmoil without detachment or return: grocery stores and manicured rooms next to offices and clothing stores.
Cuarón looks around and mentally returns to the past: "I almost felt the excitement of reaching a sophisticated and modern place, you know?" We went ahead with an announcement of Rome, near a bus stop. The film has been very well received in Mexico, both by critics and by the public. At a newsstand, Cuarón takes a picture of Yalitza Aparicio, the actress who plays Cleo, on the cover of a Mexican magazine. The images of Aparicio in the magazines have generated debates on the lack of representation of the Mexican natives in popular culture and advertising and, more generally, on racism and classism, so rooted in Mexico. "I am happy that the problem is at the forefront and analyzed", comments Cuarón.
The transformation of Rome
When he returns to the car, the director asks the driver to go to Tepeji Street, where he grew up. It's a narrow residential street, where most of the buildings are modest two-story houses. Cuarón deplores the changes that building owners have made since the '60s &' 70s, and in particular the fact that they have covered some details that have shaped the charm of colonial architecture. "When they started to get a little bit of money, the neighbors modernized houses because they wanted to be part of the new era," said Cuarón. See these aluminum windows? he adds, pointing to a house. They had to be modern. And these doors – he says, pointing to another building – are horrible, as well as these tiles that cover what was beautiful before. "
Cuarón and his production team meticulously recreated how things stood, or how the director reminded them. He tried to shoot as many original places as possible, and he did it in some cases, as in the recreation of the Corpus Christi or El Halconazo massacre, when paramilitary forces attacked the students during a demonstration in 1971. However, in original positions have been radically transformed, so the team was forced to recreate them from scratch.
The process began with long conversations between Cuarón and the production designer of the film, Eugenio Caballero, who also grew up in Rome. They completed these talks with a thorough investigation of the archives. Then they built a copy of two islands from the Avenida de Insurgentes from scratch and adapted it to a scene that had to remember Avenida Baja California. Furthermore, they have recreated parts of a hospital. However, his most faithful attention to detail has been applied in the recreation of the Cuarón kindergarten. The original building, located in Tepeji Street, 21, had undergone so many changes that it was not suitable for production. The film team adapted the facade of a house from across the street to the exterior scenes of the same Tepeji road. They also adapted a second position for the scenes on the roof. For the patio and the interior scenes they used another house, which was to be demolished, and remodeled as a replica of the Cuarón family home.
I ask the director why he has so obsessively recreated the smallest details of the house, even though many people will not notice the difference. The director fully responds: "I would have noticed". He says that Mexico City is a place of constant tension between what it is and what it is. "For me, it's a place full of past," he said nostalgically.
A domestic worker is sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house where he spent his childhood. "This sound is also in the movie," says Cuarón. The woman removes a bucket of water and begins to rinse the house entrance. "This sound!" The director exclaims. Rome It begins with a scene in which Cleo cleans the entrance of the house with water and a broom, and Cuarón is happy – perhaps even comforted – for this crossing of life that imitates the art that imitates life. Despite all that has changed, there are some things that remain as you remember them.