Somewhere in central Mexico, a mansion has been transformed into a studio of sorts for director Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, a project veiled in secrecy. All that Cuarón will reveal to anyone is that the story takes place in the 1970s and follows a year in the life of a middle-class family ‘with many elements and experiences of my childhood’.
Cuarón is a master director, best known for big, brilliant entertainment movies, such as Gravity, Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. For Roma, however, he has returned to his homeland, where his stratospheric career took off with the breezy naturalistic 2001 road movie Y Tu Mamá También, in which two young men pursue the older woman of their dreams. That film was crucial in putting Mexican cinema back on the international map.
The sprawling colonial house where Cuarón’s new film is being made has many beguiling features. There’s a double grand staircase at the entrance and a more sinister set of steep steps without rails leading down to a storage area. Most of the action, though, takes place on the upper floors. There you will find the professorial-looking director – he could have been in Harry Potter himself – shooting in a side room, concentrating on the scene with laser-like intensity. Watching in the background is a young, anchored figure.
That man is Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane, Cuarón’s Rolex protégé, who has wisdom in his wary eyes beyond his years. He has just one documentary, a short film and one feature film to his name, but what a feature. Court tells the tragicomic story of the trial of an impoverished Indian folk singer accused within the Byzantine Indian court system of abetting the suicide of a fan. It enjoyed considerable success on the international film festival circuit.
‘When I first saw Court,’ says Cuarón, ‘I saw the work of someone who understands film language, and not just in terms of technique.’ What made the film so fresh was its distanced approach to the intricate action of the courtroom.
‘I know the insecurities of a first film,’ Cuarón continues. ‘I am sure that Chaitanya was craving to shoot things closer and to do some typical coverage, but he kept to his approach and that’s the moment when you really make the language flourish. It’s not the usual cinematic wallpaper, which I hate.’
Tamhane walks around the set with the calming smile of the cat that’s got the cream, but there’s no arrogance about him.
He knows what an important opportunity he has and how necessary it is to soak up all he can through observation and careful questioning. You can see that all the crew like and admire him, and are eager to share their discussions with him. He admits to being somewhat amazed at watching Roma being put together.
To read more about how the mentor and protégé work together, Alfonso’s approach to cinema, how film proves similar to magic, why Chaitanya Tamhane’s beliefs have been shaken up and the secrecy, of myth-making, of stories attached to this world, purchase our July 2018 issue or continue supporting programmes like this by subscribing to our monthly magazine.
Nick James is the editor of the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine. This article was published with kind permission from Rolex. Cuarón and Tamhane partook in the 2016 – 2017 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.