Alfonso Cuarón and the Majesty of Place

Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón is what one would refer to in modern vernacular as a “real one.” While his films are considered art house, they lack the “pretentious” label that so often accompanies highbrow films. Instead, his films are viewed as visceral, artistic deliberations on various life themes. Their authenticity and realness are embedded with his unapologetic purity in style and perspective.

Cuarón gained crossover appeal with his space odyssey Gravity (2013), his first commercial outing, which starred Sandra Bullock and explored space in relationship to humanity’s achievements and obstacles. However, all of Cuarón’s films present place as both a setting and riff on the human condition. His latest, Roma (2018), takes him back to his Spanish-language filmmaking roots and is very personal for him as a semi-autobiographical tale about his childhood growing up in Mexico City. Mexico’s landscape is presented in glorious black and white as a tableau vivant of the main character Cleo’s innermost and outer expeditions. Her spirit is as quiet as her disposition. She’s hardly what one would call a fighter. Instead, she plods through her mundane life with a silent tenacity, living vicariously through the family she works for. By the end of the film, she realizes her identity is inextricably linked to her wealthy surrogate family and it soothes her soul to come to grips with her situation.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001) was the film that put Cuarón on the map as a filmmaker. The story revolves around two college-aged young men who take a road trip with a slightly older, sexy woman. Tenoch and Julio promise Ana a trip to a non-existent beach they call Heaven’s Mouth. When Ana surprisingly accepts their offer for the trip, they have to speedily come up with a plan and a destination. As with Roma, Cuarón is dealing with a personal, familiar setting in having Mexico City be the locus of this story. When writers set stories in settings they know, the story tends to ring truer. Take for example, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Because the city is his home, he was able to capture an underbelly of it that a filmmaker who was less familiar might not have captured. As in Roma, the beach is a place of redemption and of cleansing in Y Tu Mamá También. When the three friends on the road trip end up at the beach they realize it’s their Balm of Gilead and that, indeed, the journey has just started for them.

Cuarón has said in interviews that when he was growing up he knew he wanted to be a film director or an astronaut. With Gravity, his love for outer space shines bright. The universe is presented as an expansive blanket of midnight blue and Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone seems minuscule amidst the limitless panorama. Place in Y Tu Mamá También served to help the characters identify with themselves. In Gravity, Cuarón goes beyond that and wants us to identify not only with Ryan, but with humanity as a whole. Ryan’s isolated character drifts into outer space like a baby in the womb, yet to be born to the harshness of the world. Floating through the universe, she realizes there’s something greater than her that sustains us. While it’s true that we are all born alone and ultimately we all die alone, it’s the connectedness with others and with our Creator that makes life’s journey magnificent.

Children of Men (2006), based on the on P. D. James 1992 novel The Children of Men, stars Clive Owen as revolutionary Theo Faron and is set in a dystopian society in 2027 where women are infertile for 18 years. This means society could soon fade away. A pregnant woman, Kee, is discovered and it’s Theo’s task to get her to safety on an island. While the Mad Max-esque setting is new for Cuarón, he manages to cultivate the humanity in the characters like a gardener water plants. He uses circular logic in having Kee be black, since the cradle of civilization started in Africa, it will again start with a black woman according to his storyline. Water is again artfully used as a symbol of life, death and rebirth and the disillusioned, cynical Theo is presented with a glimmer of hope for the future of the world by story’s end.

Cuarón has directed other big budget films, but the movies he writes and directs always have his touch of nostalgia and innocence. His movies also give nods to other great films. For instance, one couldn’t help but think of Stanly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey while watching Gravity. His love for the movies is evident in every frame of his films. His films are so visually sumptuous and artistically innovative, there’s no doubt that he relishes what he’s doing. Cuarón’s films have not only evolved, but they’ve come full circle in their evolution. With Roma, he’s back to simplicity. And, within that simplicity is a universe of complexity. Though he’s made big budget films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s his smaller, more personal films that are natural diamonds, springing from his instinct about places he knows. In Cuarón’s films, place isn’t just physical, it’s absolution that brings inner peace.

Sonya Alexander is a freelance entertainment journalist, academic writer and screenwriter who began her career as a talent agent-in-training.

Image: Roma, Netflix, 2018.

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