Five films to watch to get ready for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

What to see to prepare yourself for one of the best films of 2018.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Roma (2018)

Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is one of the very best films of 2018. With its nod to both Federico Fellini and the Italian neorealist films, which the director has said reminded him of his own childhood, the film’s title refers to Colonia Roma, the district of Mexico City that Cuarón called home. Which isn’t to say that Roma bears much in common with Fellini, neorealism or even its director’s autobiography, more that it’s a nostalgic evocation of a very specific time and place, the early 1970s of Cuarón’s youth.

While Roma’s protagonist is no proxy for its director – it centres on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic worker for a well-to-do family – it’s nevertheless entirely personal, and as a result feels like the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s a ravishing spectacle, but one that resists the formal showboating that came of Cuarón’s previous films; the director seeming to subsume his presence into the meticulous textures of the film itself.

With Roma in select cinemas and on Netflix from December, here’s a handful of other films to get stuck into once you’ve seen it, or while you’re waiting…

Los olvidados (1950)

Director Luis Buñuel

Los olvidados (1950)

Nearly seven decades before Cuarón put the Colonia Roma of his childhood on film, Spanish master Luis Buñuel travelled to Mexico City to film parts of Los olvidados in the district’s Romita neighbourhood. A shocking indictment of the dehumanising effects of inner-city poverty, centred on a gang of street-kids led by the murderous Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), it’s Buñuel’s answer to Italian neorealism, a movement he considered “incomplete” in its matter-of-fact depiction of downtrodden lives. A stunning dream sequence – the likes of which you’d never see from De Sica – proves a case in point. It’s a ruthlessly unsentimental film, and seemingly a million miles away from the middle-class comforts of Cuarón’s, despite being shot round the corner.

I Am Cuba (1964)

Director Mikhail Kalatozov

I Am Cuba (1964)

If you were blown away by the technical pyrotechnics of Roma (or Cuarón’s previous film, Gravity, for that matter), wait ’til you get a load of this. Ostensibly conceived as a slice of Soviet propaganda during the early days of the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba arguably boasts some of the most exhilarating camera choreography in all of cinema, as four extended sequences bring to vivid life a country in the dying days of the Batista regime. It’s easy to lose sight of the political agenda when in the punch-drunk throes of Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky’s giddily inventive staging.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Director Alfonso Cuarón

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Dispirited with Hollywood following the troubled production of Great Expectations (1998), Cuarón decided on a back-to-basics approach for his next feature. The result was perhaps his best film this side of Roma; a coming-of-age road movie that paid superficial tribute to François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). Appropriately for a film its director saw as a career reset, Y tu mamá también eschewed the increasingly precious formalism of his previous features for a loose, improvised style displayed through regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s handheld master shots. Questions of class have proven a dominant theme in the cinema of Alfonso Cuarón; no more so than here, where an acutely pointed study of Mexican social and economic policy bubbles under the surface of the film’s horny larks.

The Maid (2009)

Director Sebastián Silva

The Maid (2009)

With Roma the current favourite to take home some Foreign Language gold early next year, it’s worth remembering another Latin American contender that mined upstairs-downstairs tensions back in 2009. Chilean Golden Globe nominee The Maid appears, at first glance, to be following in well-worn footsteps, utilising its protagonist as a means of skewering liberal pretensions. What follows is much more interesting and hilarious, as the family matriarch takes on unwelcome help for Raquel, their maid of some 23 years. That Silva’s insistently plain-looking film proves so successful is almost entirely down to an inscrutable lead performance from Catalina Saavedra, slyly upending the power dynamics at every turn.

The Dance of Reality (2013)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky

Watch a clip from The Dance of Reality

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality (2013) and its follow-up, Endless Poetry (2016), share Cuarón’s taste for cinematic autobiography. Of course, Cuarón’s style couldn’t be further away from that of Chile’s pre-eminent cinematic shaman, a director best known for his psychedelic quasi-western, El Topo (1970). The Dance of Reality is the best of the two later films, covering Jodorowsky’s childhood in the town of Tocopilla. A singularly bonkers memoir, it’s endlessly inventive, eschewing any notion of realism for a richly symbolic dance through metaphor and maximalist fancy. If there’s any commonality with Roma beyond questions of autobiography, it’s in the political backdrop of creeping fascism, here embodied by the young director’s father.

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