Friday, January 23, 2009

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes

I watched Japón a few days ago. I've been thinking about it since.

Japón received near universal praise upon its release and Reygadas, the director, immediately began being compared to Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and others. Japón won the "Caméra d’Or - Mention Spéciale" in 2002, causing quite a stir and a lot of buzz about this young director.

Japón begins as a story about a man traveling away from a Mexican city in search of a remote village in which he can finish contemplating suicide and perhaps get the act done. Soon enough, our unnamed protagonist finds his village and talks to the town magistrates about finding a place to stay for a while. After some discussion, and with her permission, it is decided that he will stay with an old woman who lives by herself up at the top of the hill.

As he lives there for a few days, he's surrounded by the undeniably beautiful countryside and he experiences kindness from this woman. This woman is shown to have faith of a kind and devotion to prayer as well as a generous spirit toward others.

Fair enough. But, here's where the writer-director cuts to the chase and presents his argument. In addition to being kind, we discover that this old woman can be quite salty, in a strange detached old woman sort of way.

In what I believe is the most important scene in the whole film, the protagonist is sitting outside, smoking a joint and flipping through his personal artbook. He offers the old woman a joint and she "reluctantly" accepts, then they look at his book and she shows him her favorite, which are some scribbles. They talk about comics and Jesus images.

She then asks the unnamed man,

"And whom do you like more: the Virgin Mary or God?"

"I didn't know it was a matter of liking. I told you yesterday they're all the same to me."

"Here women prefer God, and men love the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. I had a nephew in jail and I used to bring presents for him. I gave him the Virgin Mary's holy image, but they took it from him and thrashed him, 'cause he kept masturbating upon her."

The camera pans back to the man who has a smile on his face, then pans back to the woman staring silently.

Next, a cut to the man alone in a room unbuttoning his shirt and probing his chest with his revolver, then cut to a long shot of him laying on his back completely naked masturbating.

And suddenly, new life.

The unnamed man now has the will to live. He attempts to fight off relatives trying to deconstruct the woman's barn. He engages with the locals and gets drunk. He tells this old woman that he would like to have sexual intercourse with her and she accepts, smiling at a crucifix during mass the morning before the act. Presented through images, both her decision and his decision, mixed in their sexual union, become sacrificial.

At the heart of this film is the idea of man being redeemed by carnality. He finds new strength within himself because his nether region starts to stir.

Japón is the most offensive film that I've seen in recent memory. It is also one of the most well-crafted and confident films that I've seen recently. Reygadas believes in his story and it shows in every frame.

Comparisons to Tarkovsky are valid enough. Reygadas utilizes a majority of long takes, uses animals (horses) as symbols, and is searching for truth in every image.

The major difference, in my mind, between Tarkovsky and Reygadas is that Tarkovsky, in everything he does, at his most gloriously materialistic, is always sculpting time in service of that which is transcendent. Tarkovsky brings us to the Mount of Transfiguration, then brings us back down where the extraordinary becomes visible amidst the ordinary and the whole world becomes transfigured, seen for how glorious it all truly is, if only we had eyes open to see it.

For Reygadas, carnality alone is enough. Sex is his religion. There is nothing transcendent. There is desire and embrace. There is the possibility of living another day with pain. Maybe living that day together instead of apart. There is some truth to this, but it is a desperate truth. It's a dangerous idea in isolation.

Reygadas clearly hates the Church and that's what kills what truth he is able to comprehend and present. He confuses his desperate gropings with salvation instead of recognizing them as barely coherent stumblings. He mocks the Church and its Lord at several points throughout the film. The film, taken in its entirety, is certainly blasphemous and deserves to be condemned.

I condemn it.

And, yet. There is hope. Reygadas is so obviously talented. He's also obviously haunted by the Church in a way similar to someone like Bunuel, which seems to me to be the most obvious parallel in terms of cinematic anscestor. Those haunted by the Church often can't escape it. Their work is suffused with spirituality no matter how much they want to leave it behind. Those who hate the Church are much different than those who never give the Church a second thought, because hate at least recognizes the power and validity of its object. Reygadas lives and breathes and works in an environment in which the Church is very real. And he must come to terms with its presence. That alone, in this age of widespread agnosticism and casual atheism, is enough to make him someone to keep watching.

Anyhow, read some reviews:
J Hoberman
Manohla Dargis
A. O. Scott


Summer People said...

Amazing review John. I've wrestled with this director a whole lot and I've still not seen a single one of his films. I'm not impressed with the inflated L'enfant terrible tag that he's been given. This only tells me that he's a noisemaker, which serves no real purpose. As for the animal symbolism, I also hear that he's one of those schmucks who believes that "art" justifies the harming or killing of an animal. Any of the stills that I've seen from his follow-up to Japon, Battle in Heaven, are of a young girl giving a blow-job to an obese old man.
On the other hand, Silent Light might prove to be something worth the hype/controversy. I'm hoping that he's shaken off his "show-off" tendencies. Still Life John, Still Life.
Anyway, great review.

The Wilkins Lad said...

Wow. I would never ever see this film, but your review reminded me of the recent Playboy Mexico fiasco in which a model (named Maria something-or-other) had a spread in which Mary (the Mother of God) was mocked.

The images contained the very unique crown that one often finds on Marian images and there was, of course, stained glass in the background. The issue came out a few days before the feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and the text on the cover said "Te Adoramus Maria" ("adoramus," being used by Catholics only in reference to God). So Playboy added blasphemy of God to irreverence for Mary.

I suppose that the quickest way to mock the Virgin is to associate her image with pornography. The fact that she (and the Church... and Christianity in general) is maligned proves, as you say, that the culture isn't really uninterested with the faith... it is extremely interested (in eradicating it).

It saddens and sickens me that we make "art" which targets ANY belief system. When it is my own religion, the mockery also sparks anger.

trawlerman said...

Scott, I've often thought it would be fun to work for the USCCB - Office for Film and Broadcasting.

I'd give Japon an 'O,' but it's a borderline 'L' in that it is an important film aesthetically by someone working in a tradition (Dreyer, Bresson, Tarkovsky) of 'spiritual' cinema, even though I think that he's doing so subversively.

"The L, like the A-IV before it, is generally for those quality films that have more challenging material than an A-III in terms of nudity, sex, violence, or language, but are still worthy, if viewed in the appropriate Catholic context."