clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The first film by Roma director Alfonso Cuarón is streaming on Netflix

New, 5 comments

Here’s where the Oscar-winning director of Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban got started

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Sólo con Tu Pareja, the debut feature film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. Back in 1991, when Cuarón was about to turn 30, IFC gave it a limited American release under the title Love in the Time of Hysteria, though the original Spanish title actually translates as “Only with Your Partner.” The Criterion Collection released it in 2006, but it’s largely flown under the radar in the States, even as Cuarón has become a celebrated four-time Oscar nominee. For 2013’s Gravity, he became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Picture.

His directorial debut stars Daniel Giménez Cacho as Tomás, a philandering television ad man who gets tricked into believing he’s contracted AIDS. He joins forces with his lovelorn neighbor Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), on a mission to commit suicide by leaping from one of Mexico City’s most famous skyscrapers. Meanwhile, Cuarón and his older brother Carlos — with whom he co-wrote the screenplay — take advantage of their scoundrel antihero’s job and proclivities to riff on TV commercials, and to document yuppie life in early 1990s Mexico.

Why watch now?

Because Roma begins playing in select theaters this weekend.

Cuarón’s latest film and only his eighth feature overall as a director, Roma is a semi-autobiographical look at a flustered upper-class Mexico City family in the early 1970s, who are reeling from the departure of their adulterous patriarch and leaning on the quiet but steady support of their live-in maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Told largely from Cleo’s perspective, the film focuses on her daily work around the house and her stressful love affair with a local martial artist. But Roma also shows what Cleo sees as she passes by rooms where her employers are bickering or as she walks through a bustling city dealing with recent outbreaks of student riots. Cuarón re-creates a time and place he remembers vividly, but he looks at it through someone else’s eyes in dreamy black and white and often in astonishingly long takes where large groups of actors (and, in one remarkable scene, cattle) move through the frame.

Since making Sólo con Tu Pareja, Cuarón has had a sparse but eclectic filmography, including three very different films considered by many critics to be the best of their respective years: 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También (a sexy, digressive road movie), 2006’s Children of Men (a futuristic drama about a world in danger of falling apart due to rampant infertility), and 2013’s Gravity (a visually splendid outer space adventure, with a larger point to make about what binds people to this world). Roma is rightly being called his masterpiece because it returns him to the more personal filmmaking of Y Tu Mamá También, with the visual flair of Gravity and Children of Men. It’s an absorbing domestic melodrama, shot like a historical epic.

Sólo con Tu Pareja has a lot in common with Roma, even though it’s a playful sex comedy (with a somewhat immature approach to prodigious sexual conquests and STIs). Throughout his career — even in more commercial assignments like 1995’s A Little Princess, 1998’s Great Expectations, and 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Cuarón has seized every opportunity to experiment with novel ways of telling stories on-screen and to film striking images just for their own sake. Amid the heightened emotions and picaresque adventure of Sólo con Tu Pareja, Cuarón still finds time for a quirky little sequence where Tomás lines up paper cones and then steps on them and for a gorgeous love scene where light and shadow curve hypnotically over bare skin. Nothing in a Cuarón film has ever been rote.

Who it’s for

Anyone interested in contemporary Mexican life and art.

In the 1990s, Cuarón bonded with two other up-and-coming Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu. These self-described “Three Amigos” have gone on to remarkable creative, commercial, and industry success. They’ve all won Best Director Oscars, and they have inspired other young filmmakers with projects that are visually dynamic and rooted in classic Hollywood genres yet also informed by their own experiences of the world. Del Toro, who worked with Cuarón in the late 1980s on the Twilight Zone-like anthology series La Hora Marcada, has described how Sólo con Tu Pareja got an emerging generation of artists excited about what was possible in Mexican cinema.

Unlike his friends, Cuarón has returned more often to Mexico as a subject. Both Roma and Y Tu Mamá También explore both the vibrancy and the anxiety of Mexico City before heading out to the surrounding mountains and beaches to show that there’s much more to this country than one crowded metropolis. When Sólo con Tu Pareja came out, it marked the promising debut of a filmmaker bursting with ideas, inspired by the likes of Federico Fellini and Pedro Almodóvar to tell melodramatic stories with a knowing wink.

But in retrospect, it’s just as noteworthy how regionally specific it is. It’s not just a raunchy character study, it’s a look at where Tomás does all his bed-hopping. In their first of many collaborations, Cuarón and future Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki venture into a complex city, making it look simultaneously fantastical and richly real.

Where to see it

Netflix. Besides Sólo Con Tu Pareja (and Roma, which starts streaming on December 14th), Netflix currently has Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and A Little Princess. The latter is one of the director’s more undervalued films: a sensitive 1995 adaptation of the classic Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel, which was Cuarón’s second feature, and the one that showed he was talented, versatile, and stubborn enough to work within Hollywood without losing his voice.