Shouldering the weight of contradictions that would define the Reygadian corpus, Japón bears the mark of a director’s maiden voyage, laboring beneath a sophomoric fascination with brutality that clashes with an otherwise observational and stoic style of filmmaking. The fluidity of the point-of-view camera work and stirring upsurge of operatic vocals, ingeniously piped in through the protagonist’s headphones, yield sublime results, but every attempt at transcendence is undercut by an egotistical disregard for misery, one hell-bent on illustrating suffering by administering pain.
Taking cues from Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Carlos Reygadas exhibits the disparity between the psychological and the ecological, tarnishing the virility and abundance of the environment by presenting it through a mud-caked windshield, paralleling the mindset of his suicidal protagonist. Travelling through the gorges that rest beneath imposing stretches of mountain, the anonymous transient (Alejandro Ferretis) struggles on the slate beneath his feet, his cane barely holding his weakened frame upright as the camera languidly vacillates behind his head. The chain of slowly fading images that document his journey create the most beautiful juxtapositions, pairing the chalky harshness of the terrain with the amorphous bluster of the wind as it rustles through the trees.
Discourse between characters is directed toward the camera eye, though the impatient lens wanders as they speak, precipitating the motion of the drifter or fixating on the spontaneous, capturing children wading in a murky slough or a pool of blood splashing from a hog’s throat. The impulsive nature of the first reel wanes as the nameless man obtains shelter from Ascen (Magdalena Flores), an elderly widow whose religious devotion echoes the implications of her forename. As she kneels in prayer beneath a humble shrine, Reygadas fashions a succession of Christian iconography, the glowing beams surrounding the face of Jesus Christ coming to life in the firelight. Her sorrow even mirrors the Easter pageant of the Biblical New Testament, the indignities imposed by her nephew’s greed and boarder’s concupiscence resembling the betrayals of Judas and Peter.
Reygadas forges a marriage between sexuality and divinity by brute force, affixing Ascen’s account of her incarcerated nephew’s lust for the Madonna to a master shot of the vagabond vigorously pleasuring himself. The radical shift in tone is jarring and intended to provoke, but never exploit, emphasizing the burgeoning libido in our previously crestfallen protagonist. The lineage of images that establish this rebirth carry an intangible exoticism, wafting between shots of horses embracing in coital bliss and the nameless tramp sniffing the collar of a laundered white shirt. This wellspring of passion also precipitates a renewed sense of empathy, intertwining our unlikely couple in sexual congress and equipping the lead with steely resolve, inspiring him to challenge the recalcitrant nephew’s claim to Ascen’s stone barn.
Reygadas’ sympathies also lie with the altruistic matron and he dedicates the closing passages of the film to her silent ascension above the terra firma. As her head sways back and forth from the motion of a ramshackle tractor, the slightest of smiles washes over her weathered visage, her ailing spirit accepting joy as it prepares to vacate the body. Through Ascen’s eyes, the modesty of the soil is elevated to an angelic grace, ascribing mystical properties to the human experience, despite the transgressions of her masculine counterparts. Carlos Reygadas blurs the line between art and reality through the wrinkles on Flores’ face and the guileless essence of her performance, but, like his leading man, he never atones for personal improprieties, surmising that aesthetic precision will distract from the animal sacrifices made to his artistic vanity.
Japón (Palisades Tartan, 2002)
Written and Directed by Carlos Reygadas
Photographed by Diego Martínez Vignatti and Thierry Tronchet