The Films of Carlos Reygadas

A
mood piece that carries a somber tone throughout the film’s 128 minute
running time, Japan is a promising debut feature from Reygadas,
and a great film in its own right. The relationship between the man and
Ascen—growing stronger
after he shares a joint with Magdalena—is touching and honest, and gives the film a sense of hope that
isn’t there in the beginning. The man’s arc is formed through his
relationship with Ascen. She saves him. With its opening shot of a traffic-congested
highway showing human lemmings en mass (echoing Tarkovsky’s Solaris),
and storyline about a city dweller finding peace in the country,
Japan
is a film about a man going back to nature and discovering
that life is for the living.

Battle
In Heaven
(Batalla en el ciello)
is Reygadas’s controversial follow-up
to his debut. The film came out in 2005 and caused quite a stir throughout
its festival run. Its opening shot of a beautiful young woman named
Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) performing oral sex on an obese, older man named
Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) is certainly shocking, but really only because
the act isn’t simulated. Those not used to seeing such things in feature
films will be taken aback, but the act has meaning to the entire film.
This is no gimcrack to pull in a curious audience looking for cheap
thrills or beautifully shot pornography. Non-simulated sex is becoming
more common in films these days. Two prominent features that spring
to mind are Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film The Brown Bunny
(where Chloë Sevigny services Gallo’s character) and John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus
(featuring all manner of gay, straight, bi, and orgy non-simulated sexual
encounters).

From
the opening shot, the audience is thrown into Marcos’s point of view.
He is confused, guilt-ridden, and not the most loquacious of characters.
He seems to be numb to life, walking through his days with cold distance
to all that surrounds him. Again, Reygadas employs a wonderful shot
high in the sky showing Mexico City’s highways, the roads forming
a triangular shape that shows the city’s drones moving to their everyday
destinations. Marcos and his wife kidnapped a child, and though we never
get details or see the child on screen, we learn the child has died.
Kidnapping is a huge problem in Mexico City, but unlike, say, Tony Scott’s
big budget, action, and testosterone-fueled revenge film Man On Fire,
which uses this as a shortcut to propel its lead character (played by
Denzel Washington) into a series of extremely violent vignettes, Reygadas
uses this issue as a means to explore guilt.

The
issue is the background, hovering over the narrative. In the foreground
of Battle in Heaven is a character study about a man whose world
has been thrown into a tailspin. Marcos is a middle-aged chauffer, driving
his wealthy employer’s daughter anywhere she pleases, but usually
to the brothel she works, for no apparent reason other than pure boredom
with her upper-class life. At the brothel we learn that Ana and Marcos
confide in each other things they don’t share with anyone else. Here
we see Marcos confessing his crime to Ana. She tells Marcos to turn
himself in.

Reygadas
got the idea for the film when he saw a man going on a pilgrimage. The
man had no shirt on, just pants and a bag over his head. He was walking
toward a church, and that image inspired the film. Reygadas knew where
his film was heading; he just had to find out how his characters were
going get there. The climax of the film features this very image as
Marcos seeks salvation for his sins. The final act of the film is haunting,
leaving an impression on the viewer that will last for quite some time. Marcos
commits a ghastly act of violence that puts him on this final path,
setting up the climax. The few moments of violence in this film feel
real, never sensationalized but still brutal.

The
film’s title, again very enigmatic and open to interpretation, came
from a passage in the bible Reygadas read. Battle In Heaven
is a powerful film that shows Reygadas’s feelings about his home city. But Reygadas contends that Dostoyevsky didn’t set out to explain
Russia, but was interested only in his characters. His characters happened
to be Russian, and because he knew his characters so well, in the end,
as a byproduct, he would end up talking about Russia as well. That is
what Reygadas set out to do with this film, and he achieved it. Too
often the obvious and controversial aspects of the film are discussed.
Yes, the sex is real onscreen, but never cloying. It is there to service
the characters and narrative. Battle In Heaven
is yet another step (and a beautiful film on its own) towards Reygadas’s
best film, Silent Light.

No
better example of Reygadas’s respect for his audience is more apparent
than in Silent Light. He lets the film breathe, taking in the
beautiful and lush Mexican landscape — the halcyon farmland, rolling
hills and mountains, the tranquil blue sky — in long takes that begin
on the outside looking into the subject of the frame, with the camera
slowly pulling in to reveal the inside. It’s a fantastic motif in
the film, and it shows Reygadas’s maturation behind the camera.

"Most
films are too short, or too fast," Reygadas said at the Q & A
following the film’s screening. "I need that time to see everything
I need to see in the frame."

Reygadas used almost all the footage he shot for the film. The finished
film contains 200 shots, and Reygadas shot 210 total (using one camera).
He creates his films on camera, not as much in the editing room. (Natalia
Lopez, the director’s wife, was the editor on this film.) He agrees
his method for filming is "very Hitchcockian." By the time the script
is done, he already has the film planned out in his head.

Reygadas claims Silent Light is a film about confusion and contradictions.
It follows a family of Mennonites (again non-actors playing their fictional
alter-egos) in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua state, focusing on the
father, named Johan (played wonderfully by Cornelio Wall Fehr), as his
guilt builds because of an affair he is having with Marianne (Maria
Pankratz). The characters speak in Plautdietsch, the Mennonite native
language. Johan feels guilty because he wants to be a good man to his
family and his wife Esther (Miriam Toews). Esther is aware of the affair,
but lives with it. The film has an unforgettable climax building around
a miraculous event that I won’t speak a word of here, but rest assured
it is magical.

Reygadas
wanted archetypes for his characters—the man, the lover, the father,
a wife, kids, and a friend—so that he could focus on the love story,
showing how Johan has a divided heart. He truly loves both women; they
both give him what he needs. The film is also about Johan’s sin. This
is not a religious story, though it may seem that way given the film’s
setting.

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