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An earthy dreamer

The raw and romantic images of filmmaker Carlos Reygadas ('I am not an entertainer') have educators balking and cineastes swooning.

January 29, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — OBVIOUSLY, Carlos Reygadas hasn't flown all this way from Madrid just to talk about oral sex.

But lately it's been a tough subject for him to avoid. Ever since last summer, when the young Mexican writer-director's second feature film, "Batalla en el Cielo" (Battle in Heaven), played at Cannes, there's been some predictable squawking over what might be called the film's highly original opening scene.

In the sequence, which is repeated as the movie ends, the camera zeroes in on a man's broad, expressionless visage, scans the length of his pudgy torso and eventually comes to rest on the face and head of a beautiful young woman. She is clearly performing fellatio, but because the man's genitalia are obscured by a blur of light, it's uncertain whether we are meant to be witnessing an actual sex act or some sort of rapturous fantasy or otherworldly hallucination. As the sequence builds, a tear streaks down the woman's lovely, pre-Raphaelite features.

That singular moment was enough to get "Batalla" pulled from a scheduled screening last week at the Sundance Festival, at Park City, Utah's Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, which is part of a complex shared with a local high school. Though the screening wasn't a school event and no students would have attended, school officials objected to the movie's being shown there, a film publicist said.

The screening was moved to another venue, and "Batalla" was shown at other screenings last week as part of the festival. "Batalla" is scheduled to open Feb. 24 in Los Angeles.

During a brief stopover in his hometown last week en route to Park City, Reygadas was characteristically philosophical about the incident. "It doesn't surprise me," says the 34-year-old filmmaker, ensconced in a hotel room with a panoramic view of the teeming Mexican capital. "And no, I don't get tired [talking] about it, because I know that ... many people feel something [for the film] that goes beyond that."

It's true: What first meets the eye in Reygadas' films, which he wrote and directed, may be only an intriguing tease, while deeper metaphysical revelations are reserved for later. In his breakthrough film, "Japon" (2002) -- which won the Camera d'Or "special mention of the jury" award at Cannes and inspired a few normally hard-bitten critics to use words like "stunning" and "sublime" -- an unnamed man ventures into rugged rural Mexico, where he hopes to work up the will to commit suicide. Its memorable opening frames contain the image of a decapitated bird's twitching head, a symbol that resonates louder as the film progresses.

In "Batalla," the utterly ordinary, working-class protagonist Marcos -- the recipient of that previously mentioned erotic favor -- earns his keep as a Mexico City chauffeur. The twist is that one of his clients is a spoiled rich girl who turns tricks for kicks. Yet despite its profane beginning, the movie reaches its dramatic climax in the country's holiest of holy sites, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and is bracketed by images of the ceremonial lowering of a giant Mexican flag.

Raised in a cultured upper-middle-class home and partly educated in Europe, where he later practiced international law for a time, Reygadas is an earthy cosmopolitan. Like his cinematic predecessors, the Russian Sergei Eisenstein and the Spaniard Luis Bunuel, he has a way of viewing Mexico as if through foreign eyes. Though he now makes his home in Madrid, he retains strongly mixed feelings for his gritty hometown and the culturally rich, politically troubled society it so thoroughly personifies. Though Reygadas' films haven't been widely seen in Mexico, where they've played mainly to art-house audiences, critics have praised their lyricism and ambition.

"Actually, it's a very strange feeling" being back in Mexico, Reygadas says, "because I like it very, very much. And at the same time, well, this morning I went out for breakfast and I bought this newspaper, La Jornada. And you read and you see everything. It's a really weird place because it's so depressing in a way, and so miserable."

Built around minimal dialogue, gorgeous, enigmatic imagery and sparely drawn yet strangely alluring characters, his movies reject Hollywood visual and narrative conventions and have been compared with the mature work of such avant-garde giants as Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky.

That's a flattering way of saying that his future oeuvre is likely to have a select but limited following. Reygadas would be the first to agree. Though he sometimes gets lazily lumped in as part of the Mexican cinematic "new wave" that includes other young directors such as Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros"), his works are aggressively noncommercial. He's simply not interested in packaging his ideas into neat little McMovies that can be quickly dispatched to the global cineplexes, popcorn on the side.

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