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.
It tells you something about the patriarchal nature of Iranian life that, while Kiarostami has previously made a movie set almost entirely in a car (The Taste of Cherry), he’s never before made one about a woman. But having decided to venture into the female world, as Jafar Panahi earlier did so passionately in The Circle, he approaches it with his customary delicacy. Kiarostami is a prodigy of deceptive simplicity (handy when dealing with dinky budgets and draconian censors), and Ten conjures Mania’s life not with melodramatics but with details — gestures, reflections, eloquent absences. We see her search for freedom in her avid curiosity about the prostitute’s life, in her claim that her jilted friend is “weak” for sobbing over her lost love and in her constant fussing with her chador, the physical symbol of her spiritual confinement. Mania may have escaped her husband, but she hasn’t escaped the need to justify what she’s done — she keeps wanting to win her shrieking son’s approval.
While a couple of Mania’s encounters with women feel a bit perfunctory in their sociological neatness (“We’ve done the praying granny, now cue the hooker!”), the scenes with her son cut close to the bone. Ten opens with an amazing eight-minute shot of Amin as he barks out street directions, rebukes her maternal failures, and covers his ears when she tries to speak. Amin’s every new appearance makes it easier to see why Mania had to split. Kiarostami likes to work by indirection, and, though we never meet her ex-husband, we come to know him vividly as a spoiled man whose pleasures are modern (he drives an SUV and watches porn via satellite) but whose marital expectations are medieval. He’s an overgrown version of Amin, who’s constantly yelling, “Take me to Grandma” — in other words, to an old-fashioned woman who’ll tend to his every need.
Although Ten is, like Japón, one of the year’s finest movies, it’s not quite the masterpiece that some of Kiarostami’s cultists want it to be. Rather, it feels like the work of a slugger content to hit a ground-rule double rather than risk (as Reygadas does) striking out by swinging for the fences. Of course, such consistent achievement is not to be sneezed at, and Kiarostami’s artistry is so consummate — precise, humane, intelligent — that I feel slightly ungenerous saying that the movie left me craving more visual interest, more dramatic buildup. There’s only so much life you can capture from a dashboard-cam, and bit by bit I found myself becoming tantalized by the vision of Tehran outside the car’s windows — curious pedestrians staring into the front seat, mysterious buildings and beckoning shop windows, the darkened streets where the prostitute plies her nightly trade. I kept wishing Kiarostami would let us out of the car, which, no doubt by design, began to feel as claustrophobic as Mania’s scarf.
JAPÓN | Written, directed and produced by CARLOS REYGADAS | Released by Vitagraph Inc. | At the Nuart
TEN | Written and directed by ABBAS KIAROSTAMI Produced by MARIN KARMITZ and KIAROSTAMI | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At Laemmle’s Music Hall
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes