Alfonso Cuarón decided to shoot on location in Mexico City instead of using a soundstage. This is one reason for the several appearances of airplanes, because according to Cuarón they had a plane passing by every five minutes.
Alfonso Cuarón was the only person on set to know the entire script and the direction of the film. Each day, before filming, the director would hand the lines to his cast, attempting to elicit real emotion and shock from his actors. Each actor would also receive contradictory directions and explanations, which meant that there was chaos on set every day. For Cuarón, "that's exactly what life is like: it's chaotic and you can't really plan how you'll react to a given situation".
Alfonso Cuarón's statement for the film: "There are periods in history that scar societies and moments in life that transform us as individuals. Time and space constrain us, but they also define who we are, creating inexplicable bonds with others that flow with us at the same time and through the same places. Roma is an attempt to capture the memory of events that I experienced almost fifty years ago. It is an exploration of Mexico's social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven to this date and, above all, it's an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time."
While introducing the film at a screening at the New York Film Festival, Guillermo del Toro, who was also the president of the jury at the 75th Venice Film Festival which awarded the film with the Golden Lion, named Roma one of his top 5 favorite films of all time.
Roma is the first time that Alfonso Cuarón, who received an official cinematographer credit, became his own cinematographer on one of his own feature projects. Cuarón originally intended for the movie to be shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. Because of logistic reasons Lubezki couldn't proceed after he had already done some preparations. Also Cuarón didn't want to hire an English-language DP and have to translate his own experience, which is why he ended up as a cinematographer.
In 2017 the Cannes Film Festival decided not to let films done exclusively for Netflix or other streaming services participate in the festival, stating that Cannes wants to preserve the traditional way of watching and making films. In 2018 Netflix announced a boycott of the festival, and Roma instead went to the Venice festival. One of the filmmakers that supported Netflix was Alfonso Cuarón. He has stated on several occasions that festivals and academies should appreciate films made for streaming services.
According to Emmanuel Lubezki, the fact that the blocking of the scenes is very perpendicular to the lens, the actors are moving parallel to the camera and the shots are composed in Z axis rather than in X axis make the camera become almost like a consciousness that is revisiting the story, like the camera knows something that the actors don't. Alfonso Cuarón, on the other hand, counters this notion by stating that the position of camera is like "the ghost of the present that is visiting the past, without getting involved, just observing, not trying to make a judgment or commentary" and adds that "everything there would be the commentary itself".
The movie in the first cinema scene was La Grande Vadrouille (1966) while the film which the family attends is the 1969 American space-adventure film Marooned (1969), a precursor to Cuarón's Oscar-winner Gravity (2013).
The scene at the 35 minute mark where the mother watches her husband drive away as a band marches down the street is a reference to the climax of Mexican Golden Age film Enamorada (1946) where soldiers march down a street and the main character played by María Félix sees her love interest leave town. Interestingly, that scene is a reference to Morocco (1930), where Marlene Dietrich's love interest leaves town in a similar fashion.
When it comes to the complexities involved in scene composition and lighting, Alfonso Cuarón, being also the cinematographer on Roma, would ask himself: "What would Chivo do?" (with reference to Emmanuel Lubezki).
Alfonso Cuarón initially was going to make a "Darwinian Adam and Eve" story, which was a family drama set either 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, before Roma. However, when Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival, heard the pitch and told him to make something more personal along the lines of Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Cuaron veered away.
Alfonso Cuarón stated that Roma is the first film he was fully able to convey what he wanted to convey as a film. For he feels that it's a story in many different shapes and hints of emotions that have been present since the moment he wanted to be a director.
The giant crab sculpture, in the scene where the kids and Cleo are eating ice-cream while a wedding takes place in the background, is really in place and can actually be visited in Puerto Ceiba, Tabasco.
Professor Zovek (played by pro wrestler Latin Lover) is based on a real person, an entertainer and escape artist sometimes called "the Mexican Houdini". The character is first seen on a TV screen performing a strongman bit on a variety show, but later appears as the teacher at the training camp.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
As of 2018, the real Cleo, Liboria Rodríguez (Libo), is still alive and still part of Alfonso Cuarón's family, or Alfonso Cuarón's family is still part of Cleo's life. She has made cameos or brief appearances in several of his previous films, including Y Tu Mamá También (2001) in a scene where she brings Diego Luna a sandwich.
According to Alfonso Cuarón, the significance of opening the movie with an airplane flying across the sky, reflected in a puddle of water, was to use the planes as a symbol of a transient situation and stating that there's a universe that is broader than the life that these characters have.
The movie depicts "El Halconazo," or the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, in the scene where Cleo and Teresa go to the furniture store to buy a crib. The government sent CIA-trained Mexican soldiers to repress a student protest. At first, the soldiers charged the students with kendo sticks, like the ones Fermin and his group are training with, but they escalated to using firearms and killing the students. The government claimed the attackers were students to discredit their movement. Cuarón rehearsed the scene for weeks with all the extras on a football field.
The last scene of Roma as written in the screenplay: "The patio, in shadows now, floats in the afternoon quiet. Borras sleeps and the parakeets are quiet. Only the hum of the city in the distance. Cleo comes out of the kitchen carrying her load of dirty laundry and crosses the tiny patio to go up the metal staircase that leads to the roof. Her steps reverberate throughout the bony structure in a metallic moan that echoes through the tiny patio, waking the caged birds. Cleo reaches the step in front of her room and keeps walking upwards. A sweet potato vendor lets out his sad howl in the distance. Step by step, Cleo ascends. Yet further up, beyond the roof, the sky is pure."
When Yalitza Aparicio met Libo, the person Cleo was based on, at first, Libo never told Aparicio anything about her life that was going to happen in the film, only things that happened to her before the film starts. So after the birth scene, Aparicio cried non-stop.
The song that the character Ove Larsen (Kjartan Halvorsen), dressed as a pagan forest monster, sings at the end of the fire scene is a nostalgic Norwegian song, which may be used for the Nyttårsbukk "trick or treat" ritual on New Year's Eve. Kjartan Halvorsen has said that he suggested the song choice. He is a professor in Mexico City and was recruited for the film at a party at the Norwegian embassy.
Even though the special effects work in Roma is virtually invisible, the majority of the film involves some degree of visual effects work. For instance, the extended tracking shot when the family's housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), watches the family's kids at the beach as they charge into the water, then rushes into the pounding waves when two of the smaller children appear to be struggling. Cuaron presents the sequence as if it is one uninterrupted shot. But to achieve that appearance, several shots had to be stitched together and the whole setting digitally manipulated. Several different takes of Cleo rescuing the children were involved, and some takes of the children were re-positioned. Certain views of the sky also were replaced. Cuaron also requested that the height of the water be adjusted so that it would look deeper. In effect, Cuaron was following in the footsteps of his frequent cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who filmed Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) as if the entire movie were filmed in one continuous take. Throughout the film, other digital tweaks were made. The neighborhood surrounding the family's home required a lot of blue-screen work to eliminate any modern sights and to extend the street on which the home sits into the distance.
The film has several nods to Cuarón's earlier work. The film-within-a-film that features two astronauts (Marooned (1969)) is very similar to Gravity (2013). The childbirth scene is somewhat similar to the childbirth scene in Children of Men (2006), with both scenes generating suspense about whether the newborn will survive. And the scene in which the mother tells her children that their father has abandoned the family is set in an outdoor beachside bar nearly identical to the one near the end of Y Tu Mamá También (2001).
In the scene where Cleo is in a furniture store to shop for a crib and has an encounter with her former lover Fermín, his shirt has one of the famous 'Love is...' cartoons on it. Being a meaningful and emotional costume choice in reference to their relationship, it reads 'amor es... recordar tu primer beso' ('Love is... remembering your first kiss').
For Alfonso Cuarón, in the scene where the father enters the house with his car in such a maneuver, like very being precise and taking so much care and detail, was a symbol in itself. The car is the symbol of a crown and the precision in filming this entrance announces that the king has arrived. The car also becomes a symbol of the presence of the man. Likewise the reason why the mom, Sofia, crashes the car, is not necessarily because she is a bad driver, it's because what that car means.
The two abandonments in the film are juxtaposed and parallel. In one scene, Antonio leaves home, claiming he will only be away for a few weeks. (As we later discover, he is abandoning his family.) In the very next scene, Fermín walks out on Cleo in the cinema, claiming he is only going to the bathroom. Likewise, it soon becomes clear he has abandoned her with the unborn child he fathered.
The closing credits of Roma ends with a mantra from Upanishads: "Shantih Shantih Shantih." It is a formal ending to an Upanishad. T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' also ends in Sanskrit: "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih". Cleo M. Kearns, a modern literature scholar, analyzes the ending of the poem as such which may echo with the aesthetics of Roma: "As mantra, shantih conveys ... the peace inherent in its inner sound....As a closing prayer, shantih makes of what comes before it a communal as well as a private utterance....And as the 'formal ending of an Upanishad' it revises the whole poem from a statement of modern malaise into a sacred and prophetic discourse."