Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)

For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.

Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005) [Mexico/Germany/Belgium/France, certificate 18]

I want to tell you that this strongly auteurist film is better than the lukewarm reviews would have you believe, but really that’s down to how highly you rate long, fluid Steadicam shots, or elegant gliding crane-mounted camera movements, set Godardian-like to a repeated snippet of orchestral music. There is a lot, visually, that is arresting about this film, but it’s also tied to a rather dull protagonist, Marcos (Marcos Hernández), who not unlike the central character in Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (1997) is rather self-flagellating and self-pitying, provoking himself over the course of the film to some form of religious ecstasy/damnation as a result of his transgressions. The mix of sex and fervid religiosity certainly feels of a piece with the Mexican setting, and the intensity of feeling is similar to that in Dumont’s film, but the corporeal fixation Reygadas has on the sex between Marcos and Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) feels rather prurient, especially given that’s how the marketing largely sells this film (albeit with some extra photoshopped hair for the international release poster).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carlos Reygadas; Cinematographer Diego Martínez Vignatti; Starring Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

Nuestro tiempo (Our Time, 2018) [Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Sweden, certificate 15]

When a filmmaker casts himself as the lead character (Juan) and his wife as his character’s wife (Esther), you wonder if there’s an element of autobiography involved, but I’m willing to believe there’s not if he says that’s the case. There’s certainly, in any case, a grandiose spirit at work here — the film is, after all, three hours in length — but there are sequences and images within the film that more than justify that grandiosity, because at times it really is transportingly beautiful. Sadly the characters are not, being messy bourgeois types having an open relationship in which the terms of the openness start to become contested. However, this all resolves very slowly, and for the first hour or so (probably the best stretch of the film) it’s just a portrait of rural life, a community of people revolving around Juan’s ranch, as various family’s kids play in the water, fighting for dominance on a raft, while the older kids flirt with one another, and then we come to the great poet-cowboy himself. Juan runs a ranch and plays games with his friends, chasing down bulls with lances, so he’s living out some kind of back-to-the-land fantasy that only those with money and comfort can pull off, while Esther… I don’t know, keeps house? It’s not exactly clear, but then Esther is a bit of a cipher at times, however much Reygadas as filmmaker may try to get under the surface of things elsewhere — there’s a memorable sequence in which she’s driving a car, and the camera just cuts to more and more extreme close-ups of the engine running and the camshaft belt whirring. Thus, when the gears start turning on the main story, involving Esther and a gringo named Phil (Phil Burgers), it’s increasingly difficult to really empathise with him, as Juan gets more and more hung up on this relationship, which she never seems to feel particularly passionate about. Still, there’s a lot to love in the film, in the way it builds this creepy tension with long lingering takes, and in the gorgeous golden hour images of bulls fighting one another. It really is quite elemental at times.

FIlm posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carlos Reygadas; Cinematographers Adrian Durazo and Diego García; Starring Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 July 2019.


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