Carlos Reygadas and the sound of silence

A modified version of something originally written for The Film Talk

The Film Talk’s magnificent JumboChat5000 operating system, which also coughs up my lottery numbers, recently flagged up a months-old post by my comrade Tony Youngblood about cinema anima.

I’m curious about that label, but since I haven’t seen all the films Tony describes I’m happy to take his word that it fits. And in any case, this topic is the argument that never stops: One of its many sub-squabbles broke out again last week in the New York Times Magazine over Solaris, and I await Tony’s views on that with interest.

But arguments are inevitable, since films like Carlos Reygadas’ Battle In Heaven and Silent Light, two films that Tony mentions, are confrontational experiences. Being contemplative and ineffable doesn’t rule out being intensely manipulative at the same time, and Reygadas is nothing if not a provocateur.

Battle In Heaven sets up its audience manipulation right from the off. You will have heard that the film starts with an uncensored slow-motion blowjob, but it’s one in which the camera, advancing at snail’s pace, ends up sliding in between fellatrix and fellatee. This involves a noticeable shift of balance by performer Anapola Mushkadiz (*), who opens her eyes to find the audience regarding her from a range of about one inch and cries two teardrops the color of her mascara. Reygadas is well aware that contemplation and voyeurism operate on similar principles.

Whenever Battle In Heaven sets up a long static shot, the results are far from calming. Instead it seems as if holy terror is rolling in on a storm front. Which indeed it is, at least in the heart of the guilt-ridden and tormented Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), a man blown so entirely off-course by the state of his conscience that he ends up undergoing an ascension of his own in the Basilica Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe. Reygadas marks this with a sequence in which church bells undergo their protracted start-up procedures and then ring silently, impotently, in torrential rain, one of the most jarring images of alienation from the divine you could wish to see.

Silent Light launches itself even further off the ledge, surveying not just the hearts of men but the work of God as well. Reygadas cuts the audience adrift, presenting it with small aesthetic cubes of still-life in an environment so loaded with unfamiliarity and distance from the man-made that it might as well be a fictional dimension. The film provides acres of challenging space for the viewer’s mind to experiment on, to reason with, to suppose and decide – always supposing you don’t decide to go for coffee instead.

There is another art form that can do this by design: poetry. Silent Light may well be the closest thing to a stanza of written poetry that a moving image could possibly conjure up. Unfortunately, Reygadas then said this while promoting the film:

I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story! The great part of film is to make you feel, not by the narrative. For example, the first shot of my film is cinematic. The light itself is beautiful. In literature, that does not exist.

Which is problematic on so many levels that I ended up giving Silent Light shorter shrift in print than it deserves. If he means that films act not just on your brain but on other organs lower down, then most certainly yes. But if he believes that you don’t get beautiful light in literature then I think he’s barking up the wrong tree; what does effective written poetry do, if not that?

While we’re about it, let me throw in a candidate for cinema anima whose films approach from a totally different direction. Brillante Mendoza employs non-professional actors, long takes, yawning silences, natural rhythms and moral dilemmas, but veers so far from static contemplation that the rain, sewage and tears of his native Manila get into your pores. Energized by the life force of roughly twenty million souls, his films are mood-heavy enough to break your heart, while also charged with enough anima to get it going again.

(*) The year 2012 gets in touch to add: As explained by J Hoberman in Film After Film, this should really say “Anapola Mushkadiz”.