Should Alfonso Cuaron win the 2019 best director Oscar for Roma, his intimate black-and-white drama about a middle-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s, it will mark the fifth time that the award has been given to a Mexican in the past six years.
Cuaron won it for Gravity in 2014; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won it for Birdman in 2015 and The Revenant in 2016; and Guillermo del Toro won it for The Shape of Water in 2018. (Roma is also nominated for both best picture and best foreign film.)
One might think that would be enough to create a stampede south from Hollywood into Mexico, in search of new stories, new talent, new pictures to gamble on. But while there is plenty of hometown pride in Cuaron’s international achievement, the film world here is divided about whether the success of Roma will have much of an impact on the Mexican film industry. Many producers and directors view Roma as a “foreign” film – despite its profoundly Mexican story – and don’t expect any positive domestic fallout from its success.
Elisa Miller Encinas, a writer, director and producer who won the Palme d’Or for short films at Cannes in 2007 for Ver Llover, said that while Cuaron, Gonzalez Inarritu and del Toro are all Mexican, their films aren’t, particularly: They are Hollywood films, she said, markedly different from the stories she and others here are telling.
“They’ve done a great job and opened a path but it’s completely different from the Mexican directors making films here, making independent films,” she said. “Most directors don’t care about going to Hollywood. These three had that in mind all the time, and they did great. Good for them, but it’s not what everyone wants and it’s not Mexican."
Roma, which focuses on the family’s relationship with its Mixteca domestic worker, is about inequality, the status of Indigenous people, gender roles, social hierarchies – all major topics of public conversation in Mexico today – but Miller doesn’t see the film as particularly of this place.
“Even Roma is not a Mexican film,” she said. “It has a budget that no Mexican film will ever have, it’s on a scale that is completely out of reach for any Mexican film – nobody will ever get that budget to make a film or have the power to distribute it. They are moving in other leagues. I’m enthusiastic about the film but I doubt it will change the way Mexican cinema is looked at."
Roma had a US$20-million budget, and is being distributed by Netflix. It has been the object of intense curiosity in Mexico – with thousands of people lining up to get into free, outdoor screenings in Mexico City – but the major theatre chains, such as Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment, have been reluctant to screen it due to its release for home-streaming on Netflix just days after it went to theatres. Miller, who owns a small independent cinema in the town of Tepoztlan in Mexico state, said this could be Roma’s biggest legacy: “It’s opened up the possibility of distributing to small cinemas.” It’s a novelty for audiences to seek out an independent cinema to see the big movie of the moment, she added.
But she is not optimistic that it will draw new audiences for work such as hers. “Mexican audiences are not very willing to see Mexican films yet,” she said.
Mexicans went to the movies 338 million times in 2017, the last year for which data has been released by the Mexican Cinema Institute – but only 22 million of those trips were to see Mexican films. The federal government spends $55-million a year supporting the film industry (there are rumours a new administration, keen on austerity, may pare this back), which represented 58 per cent of the total spending on film production in the country in 2016. Some 176 films were made in Mexico – mostly in the capital – in 2017, 96 of them with state funding. Many of these made-in-Mexico films are pulpy (“domingueras,” they’re called, because you go to see them on Sunday, when you don’t have much else to do – as Roma’s main character Cleo does on her afternoon off) or they are indie films destined for one of the country’s 143 different film festivals. Last year, the top 20 movies at the Mexican box office were Hollywood films, such as Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther.
Jorge Ayala Blanco, the dean of Mexican film critics who teaches in the film school at the Autonomous National University in Mexico City, says that the best Mexican directors today are focused on making movies that will be film-festival successes, rather than box office ones – and he hopes Roma may change that. He agreed with Miller that the scale on which Cuaron is working now is dramatically different to what is happening domestically, but said the director’s latest work is a break with the other films.
“Roma is an exceptional case because it’s a much more Mexican movie, it’s a very Mexican movie independent of the source of its funding – it’s a very personal movie, that can’t be separated from the personal experience of its director," he said. Cuaron dedicated the movie to the Indigenous nanny who raised him, and has said it’s as close a recreation to his own childhood as he could manage. “The others [such as Gravity or Birdman] – they are foreign movies made by Mexicans," Ayala added. “Roma was made here in Spanish and an Indigenous language.”
Oscar Uriel, a prolific critic and theatre producer in the capital who writes often about film from both sides of the border, says that of course Roma is a Mexican film – and the others are, as well.
“Everything, everything, everything, about them is Mexican,” he said. “The impossible romance [in The Shape of Water], the culture of the family and the themes of guilt and making peace [in Birdman], the melodrama."
Uriel said he visited the sets of all the prize-winning films by these directors (The Shape of Water was shot in and around Toronto) and they felt entirely Mexican – not just because the directors and their directors of photography and key crew members communicate in Spanish. “And not because they drink tequila or bring mariachi,” he said dryly, “but because there is a very particular sensitivity in how they see things.”
All three directors translated that sensitivity into films that would have broad public appeal: They are savvy businessmen as well as artists, he said, noting that each had made movies that were successes at the box office in Mexico (no small feat) before they went to Hollywood.
Roma, of course, is not a blockbuster, not a universal story – but Uriel is not surprised by its success.
“When you share a ‘micro-world,' you have more possibilities to connect with your audience than when you make an ambitious film on a large scale,” he said. “Roma, although it is a … very chilanga [of Mexico City] film, it has connected with people from all over. Why? There’s a leap of faith – a leap that has to do with honesty. Honesty is very seductive for the public. To make something honest, really honest, to do something stripped bare … it can be very subtle; but it can be so intimate and so personal, that it can build a bond with the public.”
And while these three directors have made a particular success in Hollywood, they are creating new opportunities back home, too, he said: They’ve taken key members of their teams from Mexico with them, and opened new doors in Hollywood. “When a young Mexican now comes with a movie, [producers] want to take a look at their their work."
Ayala, the veteran critic, concurred. “Roma’s success will be a pivotal moment,” he said. “It’s a phenomenon that could have a big impact on what is considered viable cinema for Mexican producers.”