Carlos Reygadas's Battle in Heaven (2005) and Silent Light (2007) are showing April and May, 2019 on MUBI in the United States as part of the series What Is an Auteur?
Emerging six years after Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Our Time, the latest film from Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas, offers an unsparing account of a marriage in crisis. Starring the director and his real-life spouse Natalia López (and their children), the film depicts a couple navigating the difficult terrain of an open relationship.
Characteristically, Our Time disavows many of the conventions of cinema, adopting an approach that mirrors non-fiction filmmaking to capture the beauty and intimacy of the daily life of the couple and their clan. Shifting his gaze from the human drama at the center of the narrative to the rich environment of the family’s ranch and its surroundings, the director asks challenging questions about the nature of romantic relationships outside of social norms and offers a stringent yet poetic analysis of paranoia, distrust, and patriarchal values.
This breadth of attention is nothing new to the director, a former law trainee who discovered a passion for cinema upon moving to Brussels. Voraciously viewing films by directors including Rossellini, Dreyer, and Bresson, these figures would exert a mammoth influence in terms of allowing the reality of the filming environment to shape and inform Reygadas’s stories. Bresson would prove particularly instructive in regards to working with non-professional actors and the adoption of a naturalistic approach to sound.
While preparing the necessary materials to gain entry to film school, Reygadas met Diego Martínez Vignatti, an Argentinean director of photography who would work with the Mexican on three shorts and, later, on Reygadas’s remarkable first two features, Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005). Of this period Reygadas has said, “I had so many stories I wanted to tell and so many ideas in my head. I also acted as my own producer to remain realistic about what I could and couldn’t achieve with limited means.” Reygadas’s application to film school was denied, allegedly on the grounds that he was already a filmmaker.
Completed with a team of newcomers, Japón, Reygadas’s self-produced debut feature was presented at the 2002 Rotterdam and Cannes film festivals. At the latter it received a Special Mention for the Camera d’Or. Coming hot on the heels of works by Alejandro González Iñárritu andAlfonso Cuarón—though it is aesthetically a million miles from both Amores Perros (2000) and Y tu mamá también (2001)—the film was heralded as completing a major renaissance in Mexican filmmaking. Reygadas certainly gave evidence of its richness and diversity.
In as much as it can be reduced to a simple synopsis, Japón concerns an elderly man (played by family friend and non-actor Alejandro Ferretis) who travels to a remote rural valley to commit suicide. Taking a room at a house high above the village with an elderly woman (played by Magdalena Flores, a local peasant) who faces the threat of eviction, little by little, the man rediscovers reasons to carry on living. Shot in Super 16mm ‘Scope and making phenomenal use of the natural habitat, this parable-like tale was also remarkable for a final tracking shot set to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus. Critically acclaimed for its uncompromising aspirations to a transcendental form of filmmaking, the film also established something of a pattern for Reygadas in terms of its enigmatic title and inflammatory cross-generational sex scene between Ferretis and Flores.
Described by its director as “a Mexico City-set existentialist drama dealing with moral corruption,” Battle in Heaven (2005) similarly screened at Cannes to a chorus of controversy and acclaim. Marcos (Marcos Hernández) and his wife (Berta Ruiz) kidnap a baby for ransom money but the plot goes terribly wrong when the infant dies. Seeking spiritual salvation, Marcos confesses his crimes to Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the prostitute daughter of the wealthy general Marcos chauffeurs, and so sets himself down a path of reckless abandon. The film climaxes at the Basilica during an intense religious festival in a teeming Mexico City. Presenting a characteristically uncompromising vision of human folly, Reygadas’s compelling second feature is also remarkably open to the possibility of redemption and grace.
Again the director almost exclusively cast non-professionals (Hernández worked as a driver to Reygadas’s father at the Ministry of Culture), claiming that his requirement for the most natural performances possible necessitates a total lack of acting from real people who don’t try to communicate meaning. Reygadas has refuted charges that he exploits non-actors for his own artistic purposes, pointing to the trust that exists between himself and his players. The director similarly dismissed accusations that he courts attention by deploying deliberately provocative images in his work.
Battle in Heaven begins in near silence, Martínez Vignatti’s camera tracking down to reveal the portly, middle-aged Marcos receiving a blow-job from the alluring young Ana. Reygadas has talked of his desire to show sexual activity between “real” people and to avoid the sanitized version of sex and sexuality presented in mainstream culture. Reygadas also points out that closer inspection gradually reveals that we see that the man is nervous and that the woman is crying, so hinting at a sense of frustration and a longing for something better. Alongside the decadence the film presents, this longing for something better is viewed by the filmmaker as the crux of Battle in Heaven.
Though Reygadas describes his second feature as an existentialist drama, it perhaps differs from Japón in that while dealing with internal conflict and a human being torn between his actions and his nature, this urban drama relates more specifically to a social crisis and issues that arise from the complex class arena in which Battle in Heaven is set. The film again deals with moral and spiritual themes that are irrefutably universal, but the closing pilgrim’s procession to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe seems to suggest a more concrete grappling with the notion of Méxicanidad, a consideration of national identity and what it means to be Mexican.
Retaining a fondness for evocative, somewhat unknowable titles that allow the audience to speculate for themselves (the title here is undoubtedly intended to be contradictory, for in heaven there should not be any battles), Battle in Heaven certainly advanced Reygadas’s astonishing visual approach to the medium. The camera is perhaps more static this time around, with Reygadas limiting himself to a single 360-degree panning shot in an effort to construct the language of the film more purely through its editing. There is also the close connection between image, sound, and music with Reygadas incorporating pieces by Tavener and Bach to paradoxical effect. “I like contrasts,” the director remarked. “Beauty can be found side by side with ugliness.”
“I remember clearly that after Japón I wanted my next film to be faster and less calm, that’s why I shot in the city. For Silent Light  I wanted the opposite. We had a crew of just eleven. This included production assistants, so on the actual set we were often just seven or eight in number. We shot for three and a half months and were very much in contact with nature so I really wanted that kind of calmness around us.”
Travelling through northern Mexico on a personal road trip, Reygadas became fascinated by the Mennonite community, a relatively secular Anabaptist religious group hailing originally from the north of Germany and Holland. Keen that each of his films “communicate a particular feeling” and already committed to exploring the “notion of a divided heart and the pain this causes,” Reygadas sensed that the Mennonites and their monolithic culture shorn of the accoutrements of material wealth would provide the perfect setting. Now a characteristic of the director, the plot is simplicity itself, focusing on the plight of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a respected husband and father who breaks the rules of his society by embarking on an affair with another woman (María Pankratz). Johan has been honest with his wife (Miriam Toews) about his adultery, but this does little to reconcile the conflicts raging within him.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Alexis Zabé (Duck Season, Fernando Eimbcke, 2004), who accepted the challenge of committing to “three or four months with very modest living conditions,” Reygadas utilized natural elements and 1960s Soviet lenses purchased on the Internet. The beauty of the Chihuahua landscape slowly imposes itself. “The place is so powerful and so beautiful that you can’t but help to shoot it like that.” The dividends are perhaps most evident in the startlingly executed opening and closing sequences, an extended time-lapse image revealing a night sky as it slowly turns from dawn to daybreak.
A profound and profoundly moving mediation on love and betrayal, Silent Light is inspired by neo-Biblical imagery, the paintings of Camille Corot and perhaps most explicitly Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). Shorn entirely of sexual explicitness (there is also a detour from both Japón and Battle in Heaven in an absence of score), the film’s sole controversy is aroused by debate as to whether the denouement, a direct reference to the Dreyer film, is homage or theft. The “miracle” that closes the film is certainly evidence of the interest in religion that permeates Reygadas’s work, the director citing this as “a personal vision of things that passes to the camera without my even thinking about it.” The religious setting arguably also makes the resurrection a little more palatable.
Shooting in the Mennonite’s traditional Plautdietsch language, Reygadas also follows his tradition of almost exclusively casting non-actors. “It was out of the question to use anything other than real Mennonites. To start with they are the only ones that speak Plautdietsch and it’s clear that a Mennonite could not be better interpreted by anything other than another Mennonite. It was a question of finding people that would match in both looks and energy characters that I had invented in my head. All of the main cast were from the region in which we shot, but Miriam and María I had to cast from elsewhere because casting the female characters from this community proved impossible due to the clash between the tradition of the Mennonites and the Mexican machismo. I tried to cast the women from the Mennonite community in Manitoba. This also proved difficult, but I did manage to find Miriam. For María I had to go to Germany and cast from the Mennonite community there.” Reygadas’ instincts serve him well and he teases out performances of remarkable intensity.
As well as coping with the patience required to shoot using natural resources—the decision to wait for heavy rain for one sequence led to a delay of many weeks—and in a language he does not speak or understand, Reygadas was also faced with the challenge of gaining the trust of a community wary of outsiders and of modernity. Reygadas has since joked that this failure to embrace new technologies proved his salvation, with the Mennonites lacking the access to the Internet that may have unearthed concerns about the sexual images punctuated the director’s previous endeavors. Undoubtedly assisted by his casting approach, the filmmaker succeeded incrementally, “little by little making penetrations and gaining a degree of acceptance. One of the other principles of the original Mennonites is the idea of having to make one’s own decisions and be responsible before God so they also did not bother or harangue either the people that decided to work on the film or myself or the crew.”
Silent Light demonstrated something approaching a complete mastery of sound and vision—though devoid of a score there is a tremendous incorporation of natural ambience—while assiduously avoiding existing merely as a coldly calculating exercise in technical bravado. Completing a hat trick of Cannes invitations, Silent Light narrowly missed out on the Palme d’Or to 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), but found solace in the award of a richly deserved Jury Prize.