Among the crop of contemporary Mexican film directors, perhaps Carlos Reygadas (b. 1971) is deservedly referred to as enfant terrible. Doing away with traditional plot lines and character development, Reygadas conscientiously turns cinematographic conventions on their heads. He uses long, slow shots to depict tortured characters of few words living out existential dilemmas in his three internationally acclaimed films to date: Japón (2002) [Japan], Batalla en el cielo (2005) [Battle in Heaven] and Luz silenciosa (2007) [Silent Light].
By attempting to do away with the conventional artifices of film-making – after all, Reygadas has claimed he does not believe in plot – this talented director manages to present the viewer with an uncluttered and, I believe, more authentic portrait of the many Mexicos that exist side by side. At the same time, his portrayals of the “other Mexico” transcend their local realities to present the viewer with universal visions of humanity.
Here I will analyze three aspects of Japón and Luz silenciosa: first, the director’s carefully detailed portrayal of two marginal rural Mexican communities; second, the male protagonists, both of whom are tortured by deep inner conflicts; and third, the way in which Reygadas expertly weaves into the story lines a number of memorable metaphors that turn the mundane into something akin to poetry.
Two Rural Communities
In both Japón and Luz silenciosa, unlike in Batalla en el cielo, Reygadas leaves Mexico City far behind in order to explore other national identities that rarely enter the national consciousness. Through these close encounters with the “other Mexico,” Reygadas challenges the essentialist, monolithic view of Mexican identity as often espoused by government propaganda.
In Japón the protagonist, a capitalino, travels to a small village in the hinterlands of Chihuahua’s canyon country. In the opening shots the viewer is situated in a dark traffic-choked tunnel in Mexico City and slowly moves out of the city through scenes of misty highways and gradually emptier roads. Finally the car stops and a man gets out and starts walking into what is now a wide stretch of a semi-desert area in the state of Chihuahua.
In this arid region the man, who is simply called “El Hombre” (Alejandro Ferretis), or “The Man,” comes across a group of hunters shooting birds for sport. The leader of the group – a man dressed in attire reminiscent of some European grandee out for a leisurely jaunt with his rifles and dogs – befriends the stranger and eventually gives him a ride to a village at the bottom of the nearby canyon. If the brief interjection of these characters, who seem to imply a European “otherness,”signals the move away from the more mestizo Mexico City, then the inhabitants of the village represent a move to the other end of the scale with their more indigenous physical features.
Thus, within the first fifteen minutes of the film Reygadas has whisked the viewer from the sprawling megalopolis of Mexico’s capital, with its varieties of cultural, social and economic levels, to a village in a canyon that time seems to have forgotten. Indeed, this place might as well be Japan for the outsider from the other end of Mexico. The memorable characters in this village give the film a gritty, raw, unvarnished realism, which is not surprising when one realizes that these are not professional actors but locals with whom the director developed relationships of trust before filming commenced. As Ryegadas says, “I wanted to work with pure, real matter, largely for the sake of authenticity” (Wood 119).
Reygadas’ intention is, as a film critic notes, “to capture life in as close as possible to a state of pure existence, and to record his human performers in a condition of ‘being,’ rather than merely portraying their emotions and states of mind” (R. Johnson, n. pag.). With no previous experience on the stage or in the movies, the actual residents of this Chihuahense village act out the parts of the mayor, the unnamed local adults, the children and, most memorably, a septuagenarian widow named Ascensión, who lives alone in a house above the village, and who proves key to the outsider’s process of recovery from a crisis whose roots are never revealed.
Perhaps one of the most “authentic” moments captured on film is when one of the locals breaks into a spontaneous, heartfelt performance of a corrido – a popular Mexican folk song genre whose origins go back centuries and whose themes range from love to war. The man’s guttural, raspy voice emits deep-felt emotion, which is underscored by the camera’s unwavering focus on his expressive face for the duration of the song. There is also nothing false in the scene of two horses copulating lustily, or the gleeful reactions of the children watching the spectacle. All these and many more such raw details permeate the film and ground it in its locality, which never feels like a mere cinematic façade.
Although in Japón Reygadas exposes the viewer to a remote Mexican village far away from the big cities, at least its dark-skinned inhabitants are integrated enough to speak Spanish, and not only an indigenous language. However, in Luz silenciosa the director distances himself further from the stereotypes of a centralized Mexican identity by focusing on a small Mennonite community, also in Chihuahua, where the very white inhabitants speak Plautdietsch (also known as Mennonite Low German).
Indeed, this film can feel very foreign to a Mexican who has to rely on subtitles in order to understand his compatriots’ speech. If in Japón the colorful locals are reminiscent of, say, characters in Juan Rulfo’s stories, in Luz silenciosa these German-speaking white men, women and children who mostly dress in conservative garb – women always in long skirts and sometimes with bonnets and men in sturdy work clothes – genuinely seem to be “the other.”
A group of Mennonites in Canada, the Altkoloniers (Old Colonists), seeing that their government was forcing military conscription upon its citizens at the start of World War I (1914-1919), which directly went against their steadfast belief in pacifism, sought to emigrate to another country. Mexico was the only country in the Americas that opened its doors to them since, as Janet Bennion notes, the “government was happy to have more colonists contribute to the floundering economic infrastructure of Chihuahua, especially those who could provide agricultural produce.” Besides, “Mexico offered land in the Casas Grandes region that no one else wanted, few government restrictions to their way of life, and cultural isolation in a Hispanic environment” (65).
Reygadas stumbled upon this isolated ethnic group during a drive through the region and, as he says, “When I saw the way these Mennonites worked and dressed and talked, it was like a fairy tale. They were like archetypes” (R. Johnson, n. pag.). The viewer also feels a certain wonder upon witnessing the daily lives of these Mennonites as they pray together (in silence), bathe together in a local irrigation ditch in the middle of thick woods, do the farming chores of harvesting wheat and milking the cows and, in the end, sit through the sad ritual of a funeral.
In this small, tight-knit, conservative community, which for almost a hundred years has resisted assimilating into mainstream Mexican society, collectivity is prized above individuality, and men and women are not to veer from fairly strict roles assigned to them. Women tend to the home economy (cooking, cleaning, taking care of and educating children) while men are responsible for all the work outside the home (planting and harvesting crops as well as construction). It is a simpler, prelapsarian world illuminated by clear, silent sunlight.
However, evil has entered this edenic world in the form of betrayal. In the first scene Johán (Cornelio Wall), the protagonist, has breakfast with his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and seven children. (As in Japon, here, too, Reygadas mostly uses the actual inhabitants of this Mennonite community to act in his film.) There is little conversation as they all busy themselves by loudly consuming food and drink. Through Esther’s furtive glances at her husband, who for his part maintains a stoic silence, the viewer can perceive tension between husband and wife. After his family leaves, Johán remains seated at the table, and now, alone, he begins to sob. As the following scenes reveal, Johán has committed adultery with another Mennonite woman, Marianne (María Pankratz). But instead of hiding his dark secret, Johán has told his wife about the affair. Esther silently suffers even as she resolutely carries on with her wifely duties.
Johán is also suffering from a dilemma: even as he feels guilty about his affair, he cannot stop seeing Marianne since he feels she is the right woman for him. In one scene the lovers meet in the middle of an empty field where, after hugging each other in almost fraternal fashion, they kiss passionately for a long time. Unlike in Reygadas’ previous films in which the camera lingers on explicit scenes of sexual intimacy, here the lovers’ naked bodies are only hinted at: a dim view of Johán’s buttocks in a small shed, and later the camera hovering above Marianne’s bare shoulders as Johán removes her blouse.
In this conservative community where open talk about sexuality is taboo, such subtle scenes of intimacy reveal these buttoned-up characters to be human after all. However, the human shortcoming of adultery has a concrete consequence in this world: Esther dies of a heart attack apparently brought on by the stress of having to tolerate her husband’s infidelity. Thus, the consequence of Johán’s sin – not only adultery but his inability to choose between Esther and Marianne – is the death of his children’s mother.
Yet it seems that Johán may be given one more chance to rescue his marriage when Esther is miraculously revived after Marianne approaches her during the wake and kisses her on the lips. Thus, order is seemingly restored at the end, although it is never quite clear if Esther is actually revived or if it is Johán’s or his little daughter’s imagination being played out, since the film ends at this point.
If Esther is indeed revived, will Marianne remain Johán’s lover, thus continuing the ménage a trois, or will she exit from their lives after having taught Johán to value his marriage? On the other hand, if Esther’s return to life is a product of her husband’s imagination, then perhaps this scene reveals Johán trying to assuage his guilty feelings through a preposterous fantasy. His little daughter being the first to witness her mother’s revival, and tugging at her father to come and see her, underscores the need for the faith of a child to believe in miracles. Not being one to give us pat answers to complex problems – an “Aha!” moment – Reygadas purposely leaves the ending ambivalent, as life often is, for the viewer to ponder the possibilities.
In Japón, too, the central character, El Hombre, is suffering, though the viewer never discovers the source of his inner turmoil. We only know that he is miserable enough to want to put an end to his life far away from Mexico City. This unexplained mystery, coupled with the fact that he is simply known as El Hombre, dials up the suspense. However, when he goes out to a lonely canyon one day and attempts to shoot himself, he discovers he cannot pull the trigger. The scene of him sobbing in the rain on the edge of a canyon – dramatically intensified by music from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – turns out to be the turning point: he will now begin to affirm life instead of destroying it.
Ascención (Magdalena Flores), his symbolically named hostess, will help pull him up from the depths of suicidal melancholy. She not only provides him with shelter, food and company, but, most important, she acquiesces to his request for sexual intercourse. This awkwardly carried out act of fornication between an old woman and a much younger man, which returns El Hombre to the realm of the living, turns out to be Ascensión’s last act of generosity. Shortly afterward she dies in an accident when the trailer she is riding on is hit by an oncoming train. The final image in the film is that of her crumpled body strewn on the railroad tracks. She sacrifices herself so that El Hombre, now standing at the top of the hill, may ascend to life.
Thus, at the end of Japón, unlike in Luz silenciosa, we see an apparently clear resolution to El Hombre’s suffering through an unselfish act of revival and redemption carried out by Ascensión. If in Japón, Reygadas’ first film, he is more willing to propose a conventional conflict resolution, five years later in Luz silenciosa his cinematic philosophy has matured, since he is now willing to allow the viewer to interpret the ending as he or she sees fit.
Reygadas’ changed attitude toward the use of incidental music also shows his maturing cinematic vision. While in Japón epic-sounding classical music – the St. Matthew’s Passion, which El Hombre listens to obsessively on his Walkman – sets up the emotional landscape for the viewer in an almost cloying manner, Luz silenciosa, as the title suggests, is remarkable for its complete absence of any incidental music. In 2002, the year in which Japón was released, Reygadas commented on the importance of incidental music: “The sound in general is also very important and I sometimes believe that sound design is almost half of cinema, especially in terms of expression” (Wood 122).
However, five years later in Luz silenciosa he does not give the viewer any musical props on which to hang his or her feelings; he now trusts us to understand and interpret his stark vision. The lack of musical cues also underscores both the isolation of the Mennonite community in the town of Casas Grandes from the rest of Mexico, as well as the estrangement that Johán is experiencing from his wife, his children and his community. The absence of a soundtrack helps accentuate the light that silently streams down from the big skies of Chihuahua and from which nothing can be hidden, not even Johán’s secret sin.
Finally, this discussion of Reygadas’ films would be incomplete without considering his poetic style, with its many memorable images and richly layered cinematic texts, that create what I will call this director’s metaphoric vision. Japón commences with a clear metaphor – a tunnel, which may represent the restricted, crowded space of a modern city where individuality is lost in a sea of faces. The act of moving out of this tunnel into the sunlight and, eventually, the open spaces of northern Mexico may represent the beginning of the rebirth of El Hombre who, paradoxically, seeks death. Yet in his willful journey towards death he is surprised by life. Thus, the tunnel which at the beginning seemed like a negative metaphor of restriction and anonymity is transformed into a positive one of rebirth.
Death appears in the early scenes of this film when a dove is shot down by hunters and then put out of its misery by El Hombre when he twists its head off. The early image of the dove, now bodiless, still blinking its eyes on the desert ground in its last gasps of life, foreshadows Ascención’s death at the end of the film. Her eyes also blink rapidly, indicating an innocent shyness, while she lies still after having coitus with El Hombre, whose back is now turned to her. Soon afterwards she dies in an accident. Indeed, life and death endlessly circle each other; one cannot exist without the other.
A series of other animals also metaphorically signal the precarious nature of life: the squealing of a pig being slaughtered is followed by the image of a stream of blood gushing onto the pavement; a beetle crawling along a wash basin is suddenly carried away by running water; when the protagonist fails in his attempt to commit suicide he falls in the rain next to a dead horse in a moment of ironic juxtaposition. Horses also represent new life in an explicit, vivid scene when two are seen copulating in the middle of a field.
In Luz silenciosa the metaphoric presence of animals is much less pronounced, although in the initial scene, when the camera slowly pans a night sky turning into dawn, the sound of farm animals braying and mooing seems more creepy than heart-warming. This scene is suggestive of evil trickling into this ostensible paradise.
All the action in the film is bookended by the image of a clock. Early on after his family has departed and he is alone at home, Johán gets up on a chair and stops the swinging pendulum of a clock whose loud tick-tock echoes throughout the house. This very metaphoric action indicates Johán willfully attempting to halt the march of time; that is, he does not want to confront the consequences of his adultery. However, since he is a mere mortal and not God, he cannot stop the flow of time which eventually leads to his wife’s sudden death.
When in the final scenes at Esther’s wake Johán’s father sets the pendulum swinging again, this may indicate that life goes on in spite of death (as opposed to Japón in which life goes on because of a death). Johán’s father accepts Esther’s death even as he acknowledges new life in the form of his many grandchildren surrounding him. But Reygadas purposely leaves loose ends here when Esther is apparently revived and Johán is granted a fresh opportunity to return to his marriage, this time as a faithful husband.
As one critic says, what happens between the beginning and end of Luz silenciosa “is suspended between the mysteries of dawn and darkness, birth and death” (W. Johnson, 21). One of the most memorable sequences of scenes in this film is when Johán and Esther bathe with their children in an irrigation ditch that runs through a forest. The camera dwells on the very pale children paddling around and frolicking in the crystal clear water as well as on their parents lovingly scrubbing and pouring water over the youngest ones. It is perfectly metaphoric of the age of innocence that these children still inhabit and which their parents have been forced to leave. Significantly, this scene is preceded by one of Johán and his lover fornicating in a shadowy shed.
In her 2003 book Celluloid Nationalism and Other Melodramas: From Post-Revolutionary Mexico to fin de siglo Mexamérica, Susan Dever writes about contemporary Mexican cinema at the cusp of the new century at about the time when Reygadas’ first film came out (and thus could not be included in her study). Dever says, “I have yearned for a cinema that would express a sense of the moral realm without doing itself in with too much solemnity” (196). Reygadas’ films prove to be the fulfillment of Dever’s wish, since he provokes and prods with cinematic bravado without ever demeaning the viewer with oversimplistic visions.
Through his sometimes startling and always fresh visions of the many Mexicos that exist side by side -- whether traditional Mennonites or isolated villagers in a vast canyon, both coincidentally in the state of Chihuahua -- this talented director trusts the viewer to be intelligent and engaged enough to reach his or her own conclusions. At the same time, in spite of their strict Mexican settings, Reygadas’ films present moral dilemmas – adultery, the wish to die, the guilt of the sinner, for example – that are, in the end, also universally human dramas.
Bennion, Janet. Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities in the
Chihuahua Valley. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2004.
Dever, Susan. Celluloid Nationalism and Other Melodramas: From Post-Revolutionary
Mexico to fin de siglo Mexamérica. Albany: State University of New York P,
Johnson, Reed. “Carlos Reygadas’ films search for authenticity beyond reality.” Los
Angeles Times. April 24, 2009: N. pag. (Online edition.)
Johnson, William. “Between Daylight and Darkness: Forever and Silent Light.” Film
Quarterly. Spring 2008. 61(3): 18-23.
Wood, Jason. The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.
 His latest film, Post Tenebras Lux, was released in November 2012.