Roma: How Alfonso Cuarón Replaces Music with Sound

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, Carlos Peralta Jacobson as Paco, and Daniela Demesa as Sofi in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Image by Alfonso Cuarón.

By Luke N.

20 April, 2020

Film Title: Roma

Release Date: 2018

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey

I wanted to start by saying I adored Roma (2018). I did some digging on how Cuarón made the film, and I was deeply intrigued by his goal for what he wanted the film to be. According to the filmmaker himself, he wanted to create a completely authentic portrayal of life, particularly pieces of his childhood. Furthermore, Cuarón wanted many of the characters and events that happen in the film to be drawn from his past. He ended up actually filming Roma in his real childhood home, and recreated many streets and blocks to make them look exactly how they did in the 1970s. The main character in the film, Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio), is a nanny who Cuarón modeled to be an exact rendition of his own childhood caretaker, and he wanted the character to resemble the care and unconditional love that his nanny showed him. But there’s one more crucial thing that Cuarón did to create an authentic illustration of life and his past: he didn’t have any music play throughout his film.

The white Spanish-speaking family that Cleo works for.

I’d say that 99% of the time, a film must have music in it. To me, music serves as one of the most important aspects of a film, as it plays a vital role in creating the tone and style of a film, and helps let the audience know exactly what the character(s) are feeling in any given moment. Secondly, music can help make a film far more memorable than its competitors. Jaws (1975) is a fantastic example of this. Jaws not only has a great story and fleshed-out characters, but it’s music is memorable and plays a crucial role in making the terrifying, foreboding feel to the film. So, typically, I believe a film would be horrible without any sort of music in it, but Roma somehow pulls it off. It pulls it off so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize until after finishing the film that there wasn’t any music, and even then I had to look it up to double-check myself. I thought long and hard about why having no music worked so well for Roma, and I finally came to a conclusion: Cuarón still uses music, just not in the traditional sense.

I was amazed that it had taken me so long to realize there was no music in Roma, and I wondered how I didn’t notice it. But then I remembered appreciating how Cuarón uses a culmination of sounds to create a raw city feel to the film. There are no silent moments in Roma, as the characters live pretty much in the heart of the city. In almost every scene (excluding when the characters travel out to the country), I could constantly hear the familiar sounds of city life rolling through my ears; the sound of cars honking, people yelling, children laughing, dogs barking, tires screeching, sirens wailing, chickens clucking, birds chirping, water running, doors slamming, and, in some scenes, gunshots being fired off in the distance. It suddenly dawned on me that Cuarón uses this culmination of sounds to give his film the feel of the ebb and flow of life. Cuarón mentioned how he wanted to create a truly authentic illustration of life in Roma, and I believe part of that was to constantly show the flow of life occurring around the characters. I noticed that, in every scene, there’s always a multitude of things happening around the characters, hence the persistent noises and sound. 

The martial arts scene when Cleo goes to visit Fermin

Cuarón also accomplishes this through visuals. I realized that there are rarely any close-up shots of the characters, even in some of their most important scenes. Instead, Cuarón uses a long, wide shot for almost the entirety of the film, effectively showing everything that is going on around the characters. Not only is this culmination of sounds happening around them, but I could visually see lots of what’s happening around them. While a character is doing whatever he or she is doing in the scene, I could see children running around, dogs jumping and barking, crowds of people walking or running, chickens walking around, people drinking, laughing, or yelling, other maids folding laundry, airplanes flying overhead, cars roaring by, and marching bands playing down the street. By combining the sounds with the visuals, Cuarón beautifully illustrated the natural bustle of everyday city life that many of us, including Cuarón, are so used to. Not only that, but Cuarón uses this combination to demonstrate that, though the characters are the center of the film Roma, they are by no means the center of life. No matter what happens to Cleo and the family she works for life will continue to ebb and flow nevertheless. I believe it’s a valuable message. So many of us, even myself sometimes, subconsciously think that we are the center of life, that we are important, when in reality, no matter what happens to us life will continue to flow on as if we had never existed. 

But you’re probably wondering how this ties back into music. I came to the conclusion that Cuarón actually made the culmination of sounds the constant score to the film. For example, there’s a scene where Cleo and the other nanny she works with, who is also her good friend, are racing each other down a busy city street. Instead of playing fast paced, exciting music like a filmmaker typically would during a race or chase scene, Cuarón uses the sounds of the city to induce excitement within the audience. The sounds aren’t rhythmic, but for some reason they began to sound almost rhythmic to my ears. Cuarón combined the sounds in a way that would still provide the fast-paced tempo that a scene like that needed. Furthermore, there is a scene where Cleo is being rushed through a hospital so she can give birth to her baby who, as you probably well know, ends up being born dead. Cuarón uses the sounds of the overcrowded hospital to show the audience exactly what Cleo is feeling as she’s being rushed away: disorientation, terror, and pain. Cuarón uses the sounds of women screaming, babies wailing, doctors and nurses yelling, machines beeping, and medical equipment clanging to give the audience the same sense of disorientation, terror, and pain. Throughout Roma, Cuarón geniusly utilizes sound to create the exact same effect that music does, letting the audience understand what the character is feeling in any given moment.

An example of the long, wide shot to show everything in the background

I truly believe no film will ever be able to accomplish this the way Roma did, and I still hold the belief that most films absolutely need to have music in them. It just goes to show how great of a director Alfonso Cuarón truly is, as I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) any other filmmaker has been able to pull something like this off. I hope to check out more of Cuarón’s work someday, as, because of Roma, he has now become one of my favorite directors.

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