In my most recent entry on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, I noted that the consensus among English-speaking reviewers was that 2007 was a pretty great year for the movies. Writing about this year's Toronto Film Festival line-up, Michael Sicinski confesses that he's still catching up with films from last year. Personally, if I were back in the 'Fax, I'd play it cool and wait for the films to come to me, confident that most--though certainly not all--of the year's important releases would turn up at Video Difference on Quinpool Rd. eventually. But seeing as I'm in Busan, I've decided to take matters into my own hands and started torrenting. I've even drawn up a far from exhaustive list of nineteen must sees (plus the one I watched on Tuesday): Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra, Eric Rohmer's Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless), Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'Amour, Claude Chabrol's La Fille coupée en deux, Ulrich Seidl's Import Export, José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, Michelange Quay's Mange, ceci est mon corps, Lee Chang-dong's Milyang (Secret Sunshine), Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest, Jacques Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache, John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises, André Téchiné's Les Témoins, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Le Voyage du ballon rouge and Roy Andersson's You, the Living. Obviously this list is slanted against American films since I saw most of the worthwhile titles back in Canada.
I wasn't a fan of Carlos Reygadas' first two features, Japón (2002) and Battle of Heaven (2005), although both won passionate admirers. Without seeing them again, it's difficult to say whether Reygadas' third feature, Silent Light, represents a breakthrough or whether I simply missed the boat on his earlier work. Japón was obviously influenced by Bruno Dumont and Abbas Kiarostami, which is fine, but it didn't--or so it seemed to me at the time--bring anything new to the table. (When Battle of Heaven premiered at Cannes, Reygadas started citing Werner Herzog as an influence, which only seemed to endear him more to some reviewers. In any event, I was disgusted and bored by the film's celebration of religious masochism.) Silent Light lifts even more liberally from the art movie canon than its predecessors, but its sounds and images are too wondrous for it to be dismissed as a mere knock-off.
The film's similarities with Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955) are inescapable. Both are about isolated religious sects--in this case, Dutch Mennonites living somewhere in Mexico--and both end with religious miracles. However, the style of Silent Light isn't very Dreyeresque. For starters, Dreyer's film was adapted from a play by Kaj Munk and is essentially an actor's film. The director's mobile long takes maintain a unity of time and space. It's set mainly indoors and was shot on a soundstage. Reygadas' is scarcely a narrative film. (The opening shot, slowly panning across the night sky with the sound of crickets on the soundtrack, recalls Bill Viola's The Passing .) His static set ups regard the characters, all played by non-professionals, as painterly subjects, placing them in the exact center of the 'Scope frame as a Wes Anderson might. When he does move his camera, it's often a smooth dolly that moves slowly in on the characters or just as slowly away from them. Reygadas favors a constructive approach to montage, rarely (if ever) giving the viewer an establishing shot of the entire space. In a funeral sequence near the end of the film, we never see the whole congregation together, but isolated medium shots of two or three people at a time. Much of the film is set outside, and Reygadas' talent for shooting landscapes is stunning. For the first time in a Reygadas film, one senses the emergence of a unique sensibility.
There are a lot of striking images in the film but I want to talk about one in particular that occurs maybe forty minutes into the film. Up to this point, the narrative has seemingly maintained a close temporal unity. The first time we see the film's protagonist, Johan/Cornelio Wall, he's having breakfast with his wife, Ester/Miriam Toews, and their six children. In the next sequence, he pays a visit to his friend, Zacarias/Jacobo Klassen, a mechanic, and speaks frankly about the fact that he's having an affair. This is followed by a brief scene in which he meets Marianne/Maria Pankratz for some midday neckin' in the desert. Later, Johan and his family visit an outdoor bath. All of this could've happened in a single day, so when the next sequence showed Johan's father/Peter Wall and mother/Elizabeth Fehr milking their cows in the early morning hours, I assumed this was the next day. After Johan tells his father that he's having an affair, the two men step outside to talk about it. In a shot reminiscent of the opening scene of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Johan's father opens the barn door to reveal that the ground is covered in snow, retroactively signaling an ellipsis in the narrative. Additionally, this calls into question the apparent temporal unity of the earlier scenes. Reygadas is obviously paying homage to Ford with this shot, but given its placement in the film, its function is radically different.
For some time now, Roger Ebert has been championing what he's termed the "New Mexican Cinema" of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro. (Who is the old Mexican cinema?) Unlike Reygadas, all three have made films in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Del Toro has made three Spanish-language films, one in Mexico and two in Spain. I haven't seen Cronos (1993) or The Devil's Backbone (2001), but I was sufficiently impressed by Pan's Labyrinth (2006) that I sought out Hellboy (2004) to see what del Toro brought to the material, which turned out to be very little. I haven't seen Cuarón's first feature, Sólo con tu pareja (1991), but his fourth, Y tu mamá también (2001), while not the best Mexican film I've seen, runs a close second after Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962). I loved A Little Princess (1995) and I liked Great Expectations (1998), but Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is indistinguishable from the first two films in the series, and Children of Men (2006) was wildly overrated when it came out for being nominally more challenging than most Hollywood fare. (One wonders if the rumors about the studio not wanting to release it at Christmas time because it was too bleak were actually cooked up by the publicity department in order to lend the film an aura of artfulness.) I liked Iñárritu's Amores perros (2000) when it came out for its style and dark humor, but his subsequent two films make me wonder if the over-generous response from reviewers hasn't gone to his head. 21 Grams (2003), his first English-language film, is such a humorless dirge one might think it was a Canadian film if not for the non-linear plot which makes the story slightly challenging to follow. With Babel (2006), one wonders if the filmmakers were trying to confirm every ethnic stereotype they could think of: the film gives us ass-hole gringo millionaires, their Mexican maid (an illegal alien, natch) and her drunk ass-hole son, a slutty Japanese schoolgirl, and Innocent Arab Children Literally Caught in the Crossfire of International Conflicts. Although Reygadas is fluent in English (see the interview included on the DVD of Battle in Heaven), he has no apparent desire to make a film in Hollywood. This doesn't make him more Mexican than the other three--Silent Light, after all, was filmed in Dutch--but it speaks to the vast difference between filmmakers trying (and often failing) to do good work inside the studio system and an uncompromising independent. As talented as Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are, Reygadas is in a different class altogether.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Posted by Michael Sooriyakumaran at 4:31 AM