PRINT February 2006


Carlos Reygadas

MADE FORTY YEARS ago, Andy Warhol talkies like Vinyl and Beauty #2 remain the reductio ad absurdum of behavioral direction, a technique that requires nonactors to cope, with negligible instruction, while the camera grinds relentlessly on until it runs out of film.

Orchestrating a Warhol is never easy, but ambitious directors have intermittently experimented with this form of situational performance. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), for example, are each predicated on a setup designed to cue on-camera improvisation. And the thirty-four-year-old Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas has recently established himself as a Warholian impresario who, working without a screenplay, creates existential conditions under which nonprofessional actors are compelled to expose themselves—sometimes cruelly—on camera.

Reygadas attracted immediate attention in 2002 for his notably confident and achieved debut, Japón (Japan), a minimal yet unpredictable movie in which every interaction is at once elemental and enigmatic. Although the film premiered to considerable acclaim at the experimental-minded Rotterdam Film Festival, Reygadas (a trained lawyer and diplomat) somehow managed to circumvent international festival rules by also getting Japón into Cannes, where it received a “special mention” in the competition for the Caméra d’Or (awarded to best first feature).

Through a series of subjective road shots we travel with Japón’s saturnine, nameless protagonist (Alejandro Ferretis, a nonactor, like everyone else in the movie), leaving Mexico City for an interminable drive to the rim of the vast Sierra Tarahumara canyon. It is a spot where his family vacationed when he was a child, and it is where he has decided to commit suicide. Despite an arthritic limp, he makes his way to the bottom of the canyon—the other side of the world; hence, perhaps, the film’s title—and hobbles on his cane into a Dogpatch pueblo out of Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread.

Reygadas’s self-condemned antihero finds accommodations in a moldering stone barn belonging to the widow Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a mild and obliging old lady with a visage as eroded as the canyon and a demeanor as humble as a saint’s. There he spends his last day. He listens to Bach on his Walkman. He goes outside to paint. He takes a walk down the road and meets a local who calls him a “nosy bastard.” He smokes marijuana (politely offering a toke to his landlady). He lies on his narrow bed and masturbates. He dreams of the sea. He fondles his gun but doesn’t shoot himself. He goes out under the sky but still can’t pull the trigger. Then he walks into town and gets obnoxiously drunk.

Japón’s deliberate pace and considered pantheism, as well as its intimations of Christian sacrifice, suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky. But the movie is more eccentric than overweening, less cosmic than intractable; its allegorical aspect is almost always subsumed in a material sense of the film as object. Shot in 16-mm Cinemascope, it feels newly exhumed, having the aspect ratio and warm, bleached tinge of a vintage spaghetti western. Although dialogue is sparse, the sound track is rich with stray animal sounds—including the squeals of a pig being slaughtered. In its way, Japón is pure, if perverse, Nature Channel. Raw existence abounds: We see in mega-close-up a beetle caught in a sudden rain shower. A man with two withered arms casually eats an apple from a stick held between his toes. Kids play soccer, horses mate, the hero propositions Ascen. She takes this request in stride (as she does everything else), goes to church, looks at Jesus, and smiles.

The protagonist’s “to be or not to be” dilemma aside, Japón does have a dramatic situation: Ascen’s nephew plans to demolish her barn for the stones. This mindless act begins while the acquiescent old lady and her boarder are in bed together. Outside, a drunken demolition crew stares at the camera, complaining that “the people from the film don’t give us much.” Having turned Reygadas’s movie into documentary, they further up the entertainment ante by encouraging the most cretinously intoxicated member of their company to croak out a song while torturing a handy dog as a form of backup yelping. At this point, Japón seems poised to fall apart, as surely as Ascen’s barn. But the apocalypse that follows allows a complicated tracking shot that pivots and prowls over the remains of the day. The jaw-dropping capper to a panoramic movie already filled with unexpected maneuvers, this final shot could itself be considered among the wonders of creation.

Such artfully haphazard, longish takes—in the midst of which the camera is apt to simply meander off—are Reygadas’s trademark. There’s a certain pleasure derived from never quite knowing where these slow dollies or languid pan-zooms are going, although they usually make retrospective sense. The director’s follow-up film, Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo), which had its world premiere at Cannes last year, was replete with such peregrinations and much else besides.

Cannes’s designated outrage, more overtly confrontational than the weirdly mournful Japón, Battle in Heaven appeared in competition amid rumors of earlier rejected versions. The audience was primed for graphic sex, and indeed, Reygadas began his second feature by quoting Warhol’s Blow Job (1964): A leisurely close-up of a middle-aged man’s face, impassive yet noticeably responding to some form of stimulation happening outside the frame. To the strains of saccharine strings, the camera pans down his portly body to reveal that he is being serviced by a young woman with an extravagant bird’s-nest coiffure. The camera slowly zooms in, pivots, and re-zooms. The reverse angle reveals the fellatrix in close-up. Her closed eyes open, each dropping a single jewel of a tear as though she were the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Reygadas has called this opener an overture. Along with a complementary scene that postscripts the action, it functions like the famous close-up of the bandit firing at the camera in The Great Train Robbery; it’s an attraction that is about, but not of, the narrative—which, in Battle in Heaven, besides providing the occasion for explicit sex, almost incidentally desecrates Mexican militarism, religious piety, and the love of soccer. Indeed, having thus commandeered the audience’s attention, Reygadas cuts to a sequence of Mexican soldiers marching in formation as they prepare to raise the flag above the nation’s capital. The equation between the two rituals is clinched by the presence of the man we’ve just seen, tagging along as the general’s chauffeur.

Battle in Heaven details the mortal, if not mythological, combat between Marcos—played by Marcos Hernández, an actual chauffeur (who used to drive for Reygadas’s father, no less)—and the general’s daughter, Ana, played under the name “Anapola Mushkadiz” by the then-teenage daughter of a Mexican media mogul. No less than Warhol’s superstars, they essentially impersonate themselves—a connection reinforced by Mushkadiz’s uncanny Poor Little Rich Girl resemblance to the well-bred, ever-poised, throaty-voiced Factory ingenue Edie Sedgwick.

Co-conspirators in Reygadas’s film, each of these class antagonists has a criminal secret. Seeking to make a quick score, Marcos and his wife have orchestrated and botched the kidnapping of a neighbor’s baby; Ana, like the protagonist of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, amuses herself by working in a brothel, euphemistically referred to as “The Boutique.” Marcos, naturally, is acquainted with Ana’s other life and, offering a confession she scarcely knows what do to with, he tells her about his. In the enigmatic universe of Reygadas’s cinema, this leads first to sex and then death; the movie’s title has the effect of locating a cosmic struggle within everyday life. During the central scene of Ana and Marcos fucking, the camera simply wanders off, drifting away to observe the hazy skyline, workers putting up a satellite dish, kids at play, and nearby apartment windows, before circling back to the unlikely lovers.

This is actually the most conventional of the movie’s sexual interludes. To judge from the response at Cannes, audiences were far more disturbed by a scene of stolid, not untender, conjugal relations between Marcos and his thick-necked, rotund señora. (The missus is played by Berta Ruiz; not surprisingly, Reygadas maintains that he wanted Hernández’s actual—and, he claims, even more obese—wife to take the part.) Meanwhile, the hovering presence of a household religious shrine allows for the comparison of these all-too-real human bodies to Christ’s mortified flesh.

More rigorous in its camera placement than Japón, Battle in Heaven suggests Warhol by way of Fassbinder. Reygadas may even be establishing a school—witness Sangre, also shown at Cannes last year. Made by Amat Escalante, an assistant director on Battle in Heaven, and coproduced by Reygadas, it similarly presents ordinary people in de-eroticized erotic situations with an uninflected stylization based on head-on compositions and long static takes.

As a good post-Warholian, Reygadas makes effective use of fixed camera and offscreen sound throughout. Marcos and his wife have a long introductory scene shot in close-ups and staged in a crowded subway underpass. (Like the nonactress who plays her, she sells jellies in the metro.) The surreal detail of a gas station blasting classical music through its loudspeakers is resolved once one realizes that the proprietor is attempting to drown out the chanting of the penitents wending their way to the Basilica of Guadalupe. At the movie’s climax, a bare-chested Marcos joins this procession, face hidden inside a blue hood, crawling blindly forward on his knees. In an extended quasi-documentary passage, Reygadas takes advantage of Our Lady’s festivities, planting actors amid the crowd—presumably including the two young, ice cream–eating policewomen, who cast a bored eye on Marcos as he struggles past them toward his date with eternity.

Ritualistic as they are, both Japón and Battle in Heaven (as well as Sangre) intimate a new sort of ceremonial cinema at once dauntingly local and boldly universal. Certainly, Reygadas seems closer to Arturo Ripstein’s extravagantly feel-bad melodramas—particularly the cine-cult extravaganza Divine (1998)—or the sado-surrealistic showbiz mysticism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s countercultural sacraments El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), than with the movies of Mexico’s current new wave. Unlike the more conventionally insolent Carlos Carrera (The Crime of Father Amaro [2002]), Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También [2001]), or Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros [2000]), the precocious Reygadas has found a way to insert himself into the ongoing discourse of cinema history.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice and the author, most recently, of The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siécle (Temple University Press, 2003).

Battle in Heaven opens in New York on February 17.