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Probing questions, profound answers create art in 'Japon'

Young director Carlos Reygadas doesn't shy away from big issues in his stunning first feature.

April 25, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

There are all sorts of reasons we go to the movies -- to be soothed or excited or to hide out in the dark -- but at their most sublime, film transports us out of the here and the now. It sounds corny to talk about transcendence and the movies, especially when the medium and its rituals have become so desecularized, yet the promise that a picture will carry us away sustains the movie lover's faith. Some filmmakers give us dreams and false worlds in which we can find refuge. For others, though, like the young Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, the movies aren't an escape from the world but a way more deeply into it.

A blast from the art-house movie past, inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky with a spiritual jolt of Robert Bresson, Reygadas' stunning first feature, "Japon," is about love, death, sex, faith, redemption and mankind's domination over nature, along with the great glories of 16mm 'Scope. The film takes place in a remote area in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, where the locals remain exotically untutored in the lingua franca of pop culture, the language that's enabled recent releases such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" to cross national borders with ease. Yet what makes "Japon" most "foreign" (beyond its cryptic name) aren't the images of peasants drinking fermented agave juice or the miasma of Catholic and Indian mysticism that hangs over the story like mist, but Reygadas' determination that his movie aspire to the condition of art.

The film opens with a familiar snapshot of our dehumanizing world -- cars racing along a multilane freeway -- before cutting to a stretch of desert in which an unnamed man (Alejandro Ferretis) has suddenly materialized. Helped by some local bird hunters and leaning on a cane, the man makes his way down into a canyon, where he finds shelter in a barn owned by an old widow, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with a face and a manner as impenetrable as the landscape. As a child, the man would visit the canyon with his grandfather. Now, carrying a backpack stuffed with some clothes, an old revolver and a heavy art book, with a portable CD player usually tucked into one of his pockets, he has returned to the canyon to kill himself.

What happens next is nothing and everything. After meeting Ascen (her name, she explains, stands for Ascension, "which refers to Christ ascending into heaven with no one's help"), the man quickly settles into routine. He walks along the mountain paths, sits baking in the blasting sun, shares meals with Ascen and watches the locals tend their sheep and cultivate their fields. One afternoon he passes a joint to the old lady. Another day he wanders away from the house into a bar, where he gets loaded on mezcal. He dreams of a beautiful woman on an expanse of beach, stares at a pair of copulating horses and points the muzzle of his revolver at his chest. In time, the opaque, solitary figure that entered the story with no name, no past and no psychology becomes recognizably human.

Thoreau retreated from civilization as an experiment in simple living and, living at Walden Pond, discovered a deeper sense of self. But Reygadas' urban exile travels from the city into the countryside sealed off from life and hope. From the moment he lands on this dusty moonscape studded by shrubs, cactuses and Joshua trees, though, he is enveloped in a world of twittering birds and buzzing insects, a continuous drone that's periodically punctuated by a cacophony of clucking, crowing, braying and bleating. Reygadas underscores the connections between the man and the animal world with a brutal lack of sentimentalism that can be very hard to watch and, in the case of a pig being slaughtered, horrific to hear.

It's unlikely that "Japon," with its screaming (unseen) pig, will ever be PETA-approved, and there's no denying that Reygadas betrays an exploitative streak in a close-up image of a quivering torn-off dove's head. It's a terrible image, yet as an index of our inhumanity, is it any less terrible than a cut of meat aseptically wrapped in plastic? A hunter has botched the kill, mortally wounding the bird. A boy who's retrieved the quarry holds the animal and forlornly tells the man that his hands aren't strong enough to finish the job. The man summarily rips off the bird's head. A short while later, after taking leave of the hunters, the man encounters a different boy aiming a slingshot at a tree. "Do you eat those birds?" the man asks, prompting the boy to lower his weapon.

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