Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Carlos Reygadas Films

Snapshots of Three Films by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas


"Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Japón follows the main character’s quest to end his life. A painter heads to the Mexican landscape to put an end to his suffering. But along the way, he finds meaning to his life. Simple things can change a person’s view of the world and sometimes the boundless beauty of nature can go a long way towards curing a tormented soul. Unfortunately, the ironic nature of life does surface in the film. When the painter has no reason to live, he cannot kill himself. But when he finally finds hope and reason in life, that reason is taken away in a swift instance. Although after making such a long journey, we can be sure that he will continue to live after the film ends because he has found an inner desire to continue, an inner desire not motivated by external triggers.

Battle in Heaven

Marcos leads a simple life filled with routines. Some of these routines revolve around him and his wife selling clocks and some food by an underground walkway. Tick tock. But in order to improve their daily lives, the two of them kidnap a child for ransom. However, something goes wrong and the child dies. Tick tock.

Marcos’s second job is as a driver and he is assigned to drive around a general’s young daughter Ana. Despite being rich, Ana derives pleasure by working in an upscale brothel. She sends one of her colleagues to service Marcos. But Marcos only wants Ana and fantasizes about her. Ana makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Marcos sexually.

Tick tock. Confession. Sin. Repentance. Inner Struggle.

Silent Light

A quiet German Mennonite community in Mexico. A perfect family. Well, almost perfect. Johan, the father and husband, is having an affair with Marianne that is tearing him apart. Everyone knows about it. Even the mechanic to whom Johan takes his car cautions him about Marianne. Johan tried to leave Marianne but cannot help going back. Johan even goes to his father for advice. Johan’s wife Esther believed that Johan had finally left Marianne but when she learns that he has started visiting Marianne again, she cannot take it anymore.

Johan has to make a decision but then nature helps him out.

Lasting Images:

The lasting images from Japón revolve around the 360 degree camera sequence at the film’s end. The camera freely spins around the surroundings allowing only a tiny fraction of the events to come into view before finally focusing on the tragedy in front of us. Even if the film ends in tragedy, it arrives at that fateful realization by following a beautiful path that evaporates any meaning of loss.

There is also a 360 degree camera sequence in Battle in Heaven as well but it does not have the poetic or emotional impact as the one from Japón. However, one memorable take arrives immediately following the 360 degree camera sequence in Reygadas’s second feature. Prior to the sequence, Ana is on top of Marcos, thrusting back and forth. The camera starts off in Ana’s dreadlocked hair but gradually moves sideways, looking at the sexual act from outside the window. Just before the camera starts moving to the left, Ana looks towards the camera (note: I am not sure if that is a mistake or an intended gesture on Reygadas’s behalf? Ana face the audience!). The camera then leaves the room and slowly moves around the neighbouring buildings before returning back to the room where Ana has finished her bouncy gyrations. As the camera moves towards them, it looks at the naked bodies of Marcos and Ana first from above, then from the floor showing their feet before slowly moving upwards towards the ceiling. There is something picturesque about this long take, watching the big round body of Marcos lying next to tiny Ana. Marcos is taking up most of the bed space and holding hands tenderly with Ana. The background music starts just as the camera makes its movement towards the ceiling and the music has echoes of a triumphant victory, a final salute of sorts. Has Marcos achieved greatness by sleeping with the beautiful Ana? Is the sequence real or another of Marcos’ fantasies? The 360 degree camera spin makes me think that this sexual act is real. And that image of Marcos looking at the ceiling with Ana sprawled on the bed besides him with closed eyes is just vintage stuff.

The best cinematic sequences in Silent Light open and close the film. The film starts off in darkness, looking at the boundless starry night sky. Slowly, night gives way to dawn and the sun rays paint the Mexican landscape with a radiant beauty. The film ends with this sequence in reverse, where the sun sets to usher in darkness.

Awkward but real:

Both Japón & Battle of Heaven contain sex scenes which will not feature in any American or European film because of the physical attributes of the mating couple. In Japón, the painter engages in sex with a much older woman. He proposes his intentions to her and then what follows is quite a realistic and a very un-sexual sexual scene – there is no enticement but a mechanical nature to the whole act.

The realistic sex scene in Battle of Heaven features Marcos thrusting his wife from behind. Now, both Marcos and his wife are big people and one never sees a sexual act between large people on cinema.

However, we are not shown any nudity during the sex scene between Johan and Marianne in Silent Light. Since the couple constitutes the normal cinematic portrayal of sexual acts, Reygadas is not interested in showing their naked flesh. Although the sex scene between Ana and Marcos in Battle in Heaven is shown in stark detail as well, a bit too much detail. But then again, the fornication between the two does not constitute a cinematic norm either.


Even though Battle in Heaven starts and ends with a similar sequence of Ana giving oral pleasure to Marcos, there is a subtle difference in between the opening and closing sequences. Marcos is not wearing his glasses in the final sequence which hints that the sequence is not taking place within the realms of the film’s realistic boundaries and might actually be happening in heaven. Maybe there is peace in heaven after all for Marcos!

Silent Light opens with a transition from night to day, and ends in reverse order, light to dark. Fade to Black indeed.

Fascinating titles:

Why should a Mexican film shot entirely in the Mexican countryside be called Japón? A clue is provided halfway through the film when the painter shows his collection of paintings to the older woman. Also, his need to commit suicide might be a nod towards the ritualistic Japanese suicide hara-kiri.

Battle in Heaven: Don’t most cultures mention that there will be peace in heaven? Hmm. Apparently, they have not met Marcos.

Silent Light: At the quantum level, a light particle is anything but silent. But we do not analyze elementary particles consciously everytime we admire beauty. And the film shows the beauty of light, which can quietly envelop a surrounding or quietly remove the ability to see things. Let there be light! Let there be darkness!

Mexico standing in for the world:

All three Carlos Reygadas films are firmly rooted in Mexico as they feature characters who live and breathe within Mexico. Yet, the character’s suffering is universal.

Japón -- the painter is tired of the chaotic city life and seeks peace.
Battle in Heaven -- Marcos is torn by guilt and lust.
Silent Light -- Johan longs for another woman and realizes that he has never truly loved his wife. But he has to suffer because he cannot just pick up and leave.

Universal themes distilled via Mexican landscapes.

I certainly cannot wait to see what else Reygadas serves up in the future.
Ratings out of 10:
  • Silent Light: 10

  • Battle in Heaven: 8.5

  • Japón: 8

    acquarello said...

    I guess my ranking of Reygadas's films would be slightly the converse of yours, with Battle in Heaven and Japón being stronger films and Silent Light a little weaker.

    I think my biggest reservation about Silent Light is that there is an overt consciousness to those memorable shots, structured almost like a lead in to call attention to the great shot coming up. I didn't see this kind of "setup" as much in his earlier films and I think it made things more predictable because of it.

    I like your comment about Mexico standing in for the world, and I think that's why Battle in Heaven doesn't let go so easily. There's that implication of class division that's so integral to the story. Privilege resides with the European-descended rubias like Ana, even though Mexico really belongs to the indigenous people who now play a subordinate role in society (I love the metaphor of the clocks). I rather like the political implication of Ana "servicing" Marcos, it shows that the fantasy is as much about sex as it is about upending the social order, and that's a pretty subversive convergence right there! :)

    Sachin said...

    Thanks for your comments Acquarello :). I had seen Japon a year ago and I do wonder how I would react to it seeing it now. I have to admit Battle in Heaven got me hooked more than any of the three films and I saw that twice back to back, and then went back a few times just to observe certain sequences. I was trying to pick clues up for the dream vs reality differences. I found it hard to believe that Ana would ever service Marcos but I could not account for all the scenes to be fantasy.

    The class differences shown in the house where Ana goes to applies equally to India, Egypt or even the Philippines. Actually it may even work in a suburban North American neighbourhood. I am thinking of the houses that Larry Clark has filmed his movies in.

    You do make a very interesting point regarding the setup of the opening and closing shots in Silent Light. I had not read about those scenes before I saw the movie but when the film started off in starry darkness and time passed slowly, I was certain it would lead into sunrise. In the end, it was clear that it would end in night as well. I kept thinking that those long sequences signify the never ending passage of time and elevate the simple story of an affair to be one of a timeless myth. The miracle at the ending sort of adds to that.

    I have to admit something though. Of all the three films, I don't think I will be re-visiting Silent Light before I see the others :)