Roma is a movie built on memories, specifically the memories of its writer-director, Alfonso Cuarón, even if the film is not his story. Instead, he lets the focus falls on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a character inspired by Libo Rodriguez, the Cuarón family’s live-in housekeeper and nanny who helped raise him. But Cuarón brings to it a sense of detail drawn from a deep well of childhood memories, from the car that doesn’t quite fit in the carport to a radio station’s “Beatles vs. Credence” programming, to comic books, to — of course — the movies.
However incidentally, the Netflix-distributed film that’s inspired the most passionate debate yet about whether it should be seen in theaters or will play just as well at home contains two memorable trips to the movies, excursions to the lush movie palaces and packed houses of Cuarón’s youth. And both feature snippets of films that would have played in the years in which the film takes place, 1970 and 1971.
But why these films? And do they have any particular significance to Cuarón’s work? As Roma hits Netflix — while still playing in some theaters, so it’s not too late to see it as Cuarón would rather you see it — let’s consider what significance they might have had for the director.
La Grande Vadrouille (France, 1966)
There’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of Gérard Oury’s 1966 comedy La Grande Vadrouille, especially if you’re not French. In France, however, it’s an institution, and it currently ranks as the country’s fifth-highest-grossing film of all time, nested between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Gone With the Wind.
Oury was a Jewish actor turned director who’d fled France for Monaco at the outbreak of World War II. He began his directorial career at the age of 40 but found limited success helming dramas. When he switched to comedy, however, his luck changed. His 1964 film Le Corniaud became a huge hit, thanks in part to the teaming of stars Bourvil (one name, like Cher) and Louis de Funès. That set the stage for La Grande Vadrouille, a film that reunites the leads of Le Corniaud and balances potentially edgy subject matter with a generous spirit.
Bourvil plays a bumbling house painter and de Funès plays a snooty conductor — men from different worlds who ordinarily have no business with each other. World War II, however, changes that when a trio of British RAF paratroopers accidentally land in Nazi-occupied Paris. With the help of other patriotic Parisians and, later, a provincial nun, their characters work to help the Brits escape to unoccupied France.
La Grande Vadrouille played the U.S. a few years later under the title Don’t Look Now … We’re Being Shot At!, but never stirred much of an interest among moviegoers or critics, neither an easy sell when it comes to broad comedies from other countries. (Writing this piece involved tracking down a DVD from South Korea.) But it clearly made an impression on Cuarón, and it’s not hard to see why. Very much in the style of other big-budget ’60s comedies, it features vivid performances and a bunch of memorable comic setpieces pitting obvious good guys against sneering bad guys. It’s funny and safe, the sort of film in which Nazis can be warded off with pumpkins thrown from the back of a truck — and even then nobody gets hurt.
Both La Grande Vadrouille and Roma are nostalgic for awful times, even if only Cuarón’s acknowledges that uneasy mix of emotions. The France of La Grande Vadrouille is beautiful and filled with characters who don’t think twice about risking their lives to stand up to their Nazi oppressors. Released just over 20 years after the end of World War II, the film found an audience that still remembered the wounds of the war and sought to salve them with a light comedy. Roma is filled with affection for times gone by, but it also graphically acknowledges the terror of living in an era in which government oppression and political unrest could lead to blood in the streets.
Or maybe La Grande Vadrouille’s role is just this: In Roma, we see the film’s final moments, a madcap rush for the border involving gliders and a cross-eyed Nazi gunman. In the audience, a couple makes out without paying the movie any mind as Cleo tells her boyfriend something that’s been on her mind. Above, the movie tells a story with a happy ending. Below life is more complicated.
Marooned (U.S., 1969)
The second film has a much more direct connection to Cuarón and his work, one he’s spoken of frequently. “I watched the Gregory Peck movie Marooned over and over when I was a kid,” Cuarón told Wired in 2013, while talking about his then-new film Gravity. The debt is obvious: Gravity is the story of astronauts who, thanks to a technical malfunction, find themselves stranded in orbit and forced to use their wits to find a way back to Earth as the cruel physics of space travel threaten their lives. Marooned is, well, pretty much that too, at least in broad strokes.
Released in November 1969, a year after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few months after the moon landing, the film adapts a 1964 novel by Martin Caidin, a prolific writer who also wrote the novel that inspired The Six-Million Dollar Man. John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Ice Station Zebra) directs with an eye toward the nuts-and-bolts details of space exploration. When a trio of fatigued astronauts (played by Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and a twitchily commanding Gene Hackman) are ordered back early from a months-long stay aboard a space station, they find themselves unable to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, NASA, headed by a gruff Gregory Peck, scrambles to rescue them before their air supply runs out.
Marooned won an Academy Award for its special effects, which remain quite impressive. But it didn’t find much traction at the box office, or with critics. Howard Thompson’s assessment for the New York Times, for instance, praises many elements of the film but still uses words like “antiseptic” and “workmanlike.” That’s not entirely unfair. The film hopes that audiences will be as enthralled with beeping control consoles and zero-gravity effects as they were with 2001, but the story, by design, is much more prosaic. It works as a solid space-age drama. But it’s also filled with the long pauses and lurching action that allowed it to serve as fodder for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, too.
Still, it’s easy to see how it could get its hooks into the mind of a young Cuarón, and how he could use it as raw material for a richer, more kinetic film years later. It’s also easy see the role it plays in Roma, a journey through the past that suggests what’s remembered — be it a moment of passion, a heartbreak, or a movie seen long ago — never really dies.