Few Mexican filmmakers have achieved the global exposure of Carlos Reygadas, although he’s not exactly a spokesperson for the country’s allure. Reygadas’ formally daring, visually inventive narratives present spectacular and frequently unsettling perspectives of Mexican life from the countryside to the big city, all of which he depicts with a mixture of haunting lyricism, curiosity and dread. Even in its more ominous moments, however, Reygadas’ cinema maintains a transcendental sense of beauty.
Inspired by the epic scope of Andrei Tarkovsky, Reygadas also pulls liberally from countless other art film tropes while conveying a poetic stillness that has, over the last decade, developed into his own imprint. Reygadas’ films tend to surprise and frustrate viewers in equal measures, but the boldness of his vision tends to win out — all four of his features have won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and a fair amount of critical acclaim to counteract against their controversial ingredients. From “Japón,” a quietly philosophical tale offset by real animal violence and unglamorous depictions of sex, to the puzzling collage of surreal and disturbing non sequiters in “Post Tenebras Lux,” which opens theatrically this week, Reygadas’ filmmaking has never felt tame or dumbed down. Using non-professional actors and non-commercial settings, Reygadas makes fiercely individualistic movies.
His approach is perhaps best epitomized by “Battle in Heaven,” which took the mold of a salacious crime drama in strangely attractive, allegorical directions without dispensing of the bleaker ingredients. Every Reygadas production demands admiration: Even audiences lacking the temperament for his swooning rural fable “Silent Light” can’t deny its otherworldly beauty. Precisely because his movies are fundamentally artistic, never easy, but always in search of profound ideas, Reygadas might be one of the most important filmmakers working today.
Reygadas’ first feature won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for good reason: It has the thematic nuance and daring imagery of an accomplished creative voice. The story patiently follows a depressed painter who leaves Mexico City for a desolate canyon with the intention of killing himself. Once there, he meets an old religious woman and, through the humble spirituality and traditions of the world he discovers, reconsiders his priorities. Elements that would ordinarily seem shocking — most pointedly, a nude scene involving the elderly woman and the real violence enacted on animals by the genuine locals who appear in the film — arrive with a mixture of naturalism and serenity. Fusing stark imagery with an emotional foundation, “Japón” immediately defines the precision of Reygadas’ technique.
“Battle in Heaven”
Perhaps the director’s most notorious achievement for its use of unsimulated sex, “Battle in Heaven” is also the only Reygadas movie most easily categorized in a preexisting genre and his sole effort to take place exclusively in an urban setting. His protagonists in this case are deeply tragic figures from the outset, when middle aged couple Marcos (Marcos Hernández) and Berta (Berta Ruiz) kidnap a baby for ransom, only to discover that it has died in their possession. Much of the movie involves the impact of this incident on the two characters as well as the people surrounding them. The combination of its sensationalistic plot and the credible sadness Reygadas develops in every scene gives “Battle in Heaven” an allegorical dimension that both sympathizes with the plight of Mexico’s working class and displays the downward spiral that its prevailing desperation can cause, particularly through the cavalcade of violence that memorably closes this tense, unforgettable movie.
Reygadas’ third feature begins with one of the more memorable, extraordinary opening sequences in 21st century filmmaking: a time lapse shot of the sun rising over a Mennonite community in northern Mexico. That gradual emergence of life amid nature sets the tone for the director’s most tender, affecting film, the tale of a farm family stricken by domestic issues, religious quandaries and eventually death. Borrowing liberally from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Ordet,” Reygadas brings a semblance of magical realism to this stunning ode to country life, which calls into question its characters’ religious outlook while at the same time managing to celebrate the euphoria it creates.
“Post Tenebras Lux”
Booed at Cannes — the fate of many difficult experimental features — Reygadas’ unquestionably weirdest, at times inexplicably cryptic achievement is also his most personal. The only Reygadas movie to involve an upper class family, “Post Tenebras Lux” revolves around a successful architect who moves with his family from the city to the country, settling in the house where Reygadas himself actually lives. Over the course of a persistently confusing narrative, the architect grapples with a pornography addiction and tries out a sex spa with his emotionally drained wife. Meanwhile, an animated devil creature inexplicably haunts their home at night and a magical storm brews in the distant, leading to a startling conclusion that’s almost more fun to debate after the fact, but impossible to forget. The movie is certainly a treatise on class and alienation in Mexican society, but before that, it’s a testament to Reygadas’ commitment to making movies unlike anything else out there.
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