The Films of Carlos Reygadas

The
screen is black. A mass of ambient sounds emerges to pull the viewer
into an immediate state of hypnosis. Crickets and a plethora of other
insects are making their voices heard. Cattle and roosters join in,
birds chirping, all while the camera slowly spins around with the grace
of a Hitchcock film. At first a bit disorientating, soon it’s evident
we’re looking at the nighttime sky onscreen, clouds and stars all
together to form a perfect symbiosis with the soundtrack. The camera
settles, and some light appears on the horizon. As the sun rises, two
trees prominently frame the scene. The camera pulls in slowly to take
in an amazing image of a rural Mexican sunrise over a vast field of
farmland — the color palate a hybrid of Van Gogh and Monet landscapes
in one single, real-time, breathtaking moving image. It is now morning, and the film begins.

Award-winning
writer/director Carlos Reygadas’s latest film, Silent Light (Stellet
Licht)
, gushes with pastoral beauty from its memorable opening shot.
No cold, distant, computer-generated trickery on display here, simply
the natural world photographed impeccably. The film had its Minnesota
premiere screening, followed by a Q & A with Reygadas, Friday, April
25, as part of Cinemateca: Contemporary Film
from Latin America
at the Walker Art Center.

Reygadas,
Mexico City-born filmmaker, began his university career in Brussels,
studying and practicing law. During his time in Brussels, he would often
go to the Museum of cinema to see as many as three films in one day. Heavily
influenced by the works of Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu,
and Kurosawa, he eventually decided he had to go to film school to be
surrounded by the tools he needed to become a filmmaker. Pushed by a friend
to make short films, and given a super-8 camera, Reygadas learned how
to use the tools of cinema by "doing." He immediately knew what he wanted
to shoot and was full of ideas.

From
1998 to 1999, Reygadas made four short films, learning how to draw storyboards,
produce, write, direct, shoot, and work with actors. He honed
his style during his early works: Adult (Adulte – ’98), Prisoners
(Prisonniers – ’99), Birds (Oiseaux – ’99), and
Super Human
(Maxhumain – ’99).

Super
Human
, a six minute, 20 second short, deals with suicide (a popular subject in his features) and Reygadas’s own questions regarding
God. It opens with a narration. The main character remembers a conversation
he had with his mother: If you commit suicide should you go to heaven?
(Reygadas has said in interviews he feels it’s a great human capacity
to end our lives if we want.) His mother responds by telling him that what
God gives us, only He can take back.

—Yes, but if God were
perfect he would not test us.
—Life is a
gift not a test.

I admired my
mother, but wasn’t satisfied with these explanations.

The rest of
the short plays out a scene at a beach, and shows a man tying himself
down to be taken by the tide as a boy and his mother discuss an old
story she used to tell him—leading to more frustration for the
main character. Throw in an odd sexual encounter with the mother and
the climactic death of the man on the beach, and you have the beginnings
of a filmmaking talent whose career knows no bounds.

Japan
(Japón)
, released in 2002 and screened at the Walker in 2003, won
the Golden Camera Special Distinction at the Cannes Film Festival. The
film, shot in grainy 16 mm, highlights many of Reygadas’s strengths:
shooting landscapes — it is shot in cinemascope (he got the idea from
Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone, the first film Reygadas saw shot
with 16 mm in scope) with an anamorphic lens, squeezing the image and
showing off the beautiful Mexican countryside and rolling mountains;
his insistence to work only with non-actors and his ability to pull
natural, realistic performances from them; big, biblical themes that
ruminate in nearly every scene, but are culled from the minutia of everyday
people living fairly simple lives; long takes that pull the viewer into
the reality of the characters; little use of score, mainly using ambient
sounds or diegetic music for the soundtrack; graphic sexual encounters
featuring actors not typically seen in films having sex (i.e. old, unattractive,
and fat people); focus on characters over story, and characters full
of contradictions. All of his films feature extremely memorable opening
and closing shots that resonate in the mind of the viewer and are inescapable
from memory.

In
Japan
and his other two features, its obvious Reygadas has a fondness
for his actors, and their characters in the film. But he also has deep
respect for the audience, and isn’t the least bit pretentious. He
uses his films to speak truths about the human condition and reveal
his philosophy on life, but never speaks down to the audience, instead
choosing to show the action and let the viewers come away with their
own interpretation.

Another
common theme is his films’ enigmatic titles. Reygadas hates titles,
but realizes they’re a necessary evil. He wanted to call Japan
Untitled, like some of his favorite works of art, but couldn’t bring himself to do it because he thought
it would be "pretentious and horrible." He finished the film, concluding that
it was about light coming after dark and the cycles in life, like the
sun rising again. Three countries came to mind: Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
Ultimately, he thought Japan had the most significance to rising sun
in the minds of an audience, so he went with that.

Japan
follows a character known only as "the man" (played by Alejandro Ferretis,
whose untimely death at age 59, in 2004, remains shrouded in mystery),
a painter from the city looking to end his own life. He speaks bluntly.
When asked in the opening why he wants a ride to a mountain he responds:
"To commit suicide." When he meets a religious old woman named Ascen
(Magdalena Flores) and asks to stay at her farmstead, a loving bond
quickly forms. We never understand fully why the man wants to kill himself.
After several unsuccessful attempts at suicide (the last one featuring
a wonderful 360 degree helicopter shot on the peak of a mountain), the
man finds solace in helping Ascen (her name short for Ascension, which
she says is short for Christ ascending to heaven without any help) fend
off family members who want to tear down her barn wall and transport
it elsewhere.

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