To know Carlos Reygadas is to be perplexed; it’s hard to say exactly what happens in his films, or even if they’re enjoyable. His most recent, “Post Tenebras Lux,” earned him Best Director laurels at Cannes even as it divided everyone who wasn’t on the jury. That elliptical, two-hour exploration of the family unit encompassed everything from an anatomically correct Satan to a little girl getting lost in a field. However, the film also contained moments of great beauty amid the willful abstraction.
“Nuestro tiempo” (“Our Time”), which runs 173 character-building minutes, is likely to be received as another fans-only proposition that converts few but pleases those already inclined to enjoy his work. Those who don’t will sigh to learn that it’s set on a bull ranch (the animals in Reygadas’ films have as difficult a time as the humans), and is another family drama in which the director casts himself, his wife, and his children, fears of self-indulgence be damned.
Unlike “Post Tenebras Lux,” the new film is a linear and straightforward narrative. He drops the metaphysical bent explored in works like “Silent Light” in favor of a simple relationship drama involving Juan (Reygadas), his wife Ester (Natalia López, the filmmaker’s wife), and her lover (Phil Burgers). We learn early on that Juan and Ester own this rural Mexican estate and are in a kind of open relationship, but the secrecy surrounding Ester’s dalliance with the horse-breaking American violates the terms of their agreement — and leads Juan to believe there’s more to it than sex.
Reygadas’ portrayal of their increasingly complicated bond is intimate to the point of being insular, making it difficult to summon more than distant feelings for them: They’re like specimens on the other side of a glass enclosure.
Reygadas is uniquely skilled at making the most everyday act feel like something out of documentary made by aliens. The film opens, not unlike its predecessor, with an extended scene of children at play on the shore of a shallow, muddy lake as summer nears its end. It’s a serene sequence despite having the feel of impending doom, shot in beautiful widescreen by “Neon Bull” and “Cemetery of Splendour” cinematographer Diego García, and lulls you into a sense of complacency that seasoned Reygadas viewers know will not last long.
Just when you start thinking that “Nuestro tiempo” might represent the filmmaker at his most blissed out, he treats us to the sight of a bull eviscerating a mule in graphic detail. It’s an on-the-nose bit of violence; the Spanish translation of “cuckold” is the same as the Italian, “cornudo,” which means “one who allows the ‘horns‘ be put to him.” The camera lingers on the bull meandering near its victims’ corpse for an uncomfortably long time, which is how long most of Reygadas’ shots last. He’s a brilliant filmmaker, but also a maddening one.
In another increasingly agonizing scene, Juan walks in on Ester and her lover in the act after giving explicit permission for them to do as they please, and goes on to monologue at length while smacking his lips and clicking his teeth. It’s interminable both to us and to them, seemingly meant to serve as an emotional climax but carrying little of the weight. “Nuestro tiempo” ultimately feels like an extended couples-therapy session that we were invited to by mistake, with Reygadas playing both doctor and patient in a conflict of interest that goes unresolved.
There’s wondrous imagery, as there always is: A first-person view of a plane landing in Mexico City is so immersive you’ll forgive its protracted length, and every shot of bulls running in mist-covered fields that doesn’t end with one of them dying is a marvel. But the filmmaker’s navel-gazing tendencies slowly take over, making it clear that this is a movie by Reygadas, for Reygadas, and exists to please an audience of one.
“Nuestro tiempo” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.