By Sherrie Li
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By Sherrie Li
While most rookie directors are happy to get good reviews, a rare few want nothing less than to wow the immortals. Thirty-one-year-old Carlos Reygadas is unabashedly one of the latter, and has the talent to match his ambition. His debut feature, Japón, isn’t just the wildest eruption of the current Mexican film boom, it’s the most fascinating new picture I’ve seen this year. Reygadas grapples with the most elemental of issues — life and death, decay and resurrection, the tug of war between the soul’s boundless yearning for flight and the earthbound carnality of Nature — and the result is sly, touching and more than a little loony.
Japón tells the quasi-allegorical tale of a gimpy, 50ish man, played by Alejandro Ferretis, who, like the rest of the cast, is not a professional actor. Although we never learn the man’s name or his background (probably some kind of intellectual), all we really need to know about him can be found in his remarkable face — he has the ferocious gravitas of a wounded eagle. Bent on killing himself, he travels from Mexico City to a ravishingly bleak canyon in the state of Hidalgo, where he hopes to find some pre-suicidal peace. He winds up staying in a barn owned by Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a devout old woman who initially appears to be a cliché — the ignorant peasant enthralled by her icons of Christ. But just as the saintly Ascen proves a far more considerable figure than the man ever dreamed, so the countryside reveals a primal force that’s more than a match for his lugubriousness. It begins to transform his sense of what it means to be alive.
Put this way, Japón may sound like some sort of hokey inspirational parable — Just Say Life! — but Reygadas was clearly weaned on art cinema, and one of his obvious inspirations here is Abbas Kiarostami. The film not only borrows the idea of The Taste of Cherry (suicidal intellectual in the countryside), but adopts several of the Iranian master’s trademarks: compelling use of non-actors, documentary attention to ordinary life, and a keen appreciation for the abyss separating the rural poor from the cultivated urbanites who stumble into their society. Clear-eyed but never condescending, Reygadas captures some of the profoundly un-P.C. truths of pueblo life — brutal hunters, pulque-guzzling campesinos, tubby kids squeezed into corporate-logo T-shirts — a reality that’s almost the opposite of Y Tu Mamá También’s romanticized journey into the Mexican heartland. In the process, Japón shows us a corner of the world that feels as alien as Japan (to offer one possible explanation of the film’s pointedly enigmatic title).
Reygadas’ other cinematic lodestar is Andrei Tarkovsky, and from the opening shots of cars on an urban freeway (shades of Solaris), he shares the great Russian auteur’s desire to achieve cinematic transcendence. Filmed in breathtaking 16mm CinemaScope, Japón finds the metaphysical power in the Mexican landscape, be it the vast cosmic vistas of the sprawling barranca, the boiling black clouds that announce an imminent deluge, or the blinding white sunlight that sucks away the world’s colors like some invisible vampire. Reygadas is attuned to nature in all its sensual splendor and cruelty, from the near-human wailing of a hog being slaughtered (all the more effective for not being shown) to the indomitable energy of a stallion mounting a mare. Indeed, it’s precisely such an animalistic urge that eventually goads the man into one of the genuinely unforgettable scenes in recent movies — a freakishly life-affirming sexual encounter that you can’t quite believe you’re seeing.
There are moments when Japón’s inchworm pace and deep-dish abstraction nearly send it toppling into the yawning canyon of pretension. But each time your attention starts to wander, Reygadas reels you back with something marvelous — a joke, a psychological twist, a thrilling pan. In the last few minutes, a group of laborers sit outside Ascen’s hut, getting smashed and talking about the presence of the film crew — a shift of frame so unmistakably Kiarostamian that I feared the story was going to peter out into tired pomo self-referentiality. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The whole movie culminates in one of the most dazzling tracking shots in modern cinema, a low-tech vision of Armageddon so devastating it would leave Michael Bay gaping in admiration.
“High concept,” cracked a colleague during the closing credits of Kiarostami’s latest film, Ten, and though he was kidding, he was right. The premise couldn’t be simpler. Set entirely inside a single car — and filmed with a digital-video “dashboard-cam” — Ten follows a lovely middle-class divorcée named Mania (played by a real-life painter, Mania Akbari) as she drives the streets of Tehran, talking to her various passengers. Mania has 10 conversations in all, four with her little boy Amin, an emotional tyrant furious with her for dumping his father, the rest with a cross section of Iranian womanhood that includes a pious old lady, a feisty streetwalker and a Modigliani-faced gal who’s just been dumped by her lover. As Mania talks and drives, drives and listens, Ten gradually reveals the true context and dimension of her story — the attempt to achieve some measure of personal freedom in a culture built on the submission of women.
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