Nothing and Everything Sacred in Reygadas' Films

Susan Gerhard March 27, 2006

No director handles bodies quite the way Carlos Reygadas does. Nubile or craggy, dimpled or thin, hirsute, pierced, tattooed, well-fed, diseased, or even aroused, Reygadas’s bodies break free from their visual cliches and exist on another plane. In his debut feature, “Japon,” even “the body of Christ” and his porcelain-skinned Virgin Mother are re-mythologized from blessed sterility to sexual potency. Mexican director Reygadas first surprised Cannes in 2002 with “Japon’s” unlikely pairing of a suicidal middle-aged man and an aged innkeeper, then returned three years later with full-frontal, class-crossing oral pleasure between a young woman of wealth and her not-conventionally attractive driver in “Battle in Heaven.” It may be the very un-Method-acting approach Reygadas uses with his nonprofessional cast — the artfully static choreography that leaves them looking more like classical sculpture than persons grunting through their most basic drives — but these strange communions are elevating, not degrading. His characters, stripped of clothes, are both “naked” as well as “nude,” and none the worse for it.

What’s curious about the body work in Carlos Reygadas’s body of work is that it actually diverts some audiences from realizing just how beyond-the-curve he is in depicting internal mind-states with complex aural landscaping. Where ‘Japon’s’ empty vistas, falling rocks, even horny horses evoked the competition between eros and thanatos, in “Battle in Heaven,” the war is waged through sound, thickly produced with uncomfortable silences and noisome horns. Reygadas’s international and multigenerational soundscape has vivid points of view, surprising stops and starts, and hairpin turns that add surreality to the stew when, say, some loud Bach pipes out of a gas station as religious pilgrims march onward across the street.

I got to speak with former international human rights lawyer Reygadas about his own hair-pin career turn, as well as his two feature films, when the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last month brought him over from Spain, where he’s currently living, for two special screenings. “Battle in Heaven” opens at the Roxie later this week.

SF360: Have audiences been challenging at festivals and screenings?

Carlos Reygadas: Unfortunately not, because I find that quite entertaining. In one festival, they were just having a laugh, and I was too. It was in San Sebastian, in Spain. I remember that it was a woman who has only seen Hollywood films, complaining about the way people move so slowly, and that kind of thing. It wasn’t deep criticism — although that would be good, too. But it was a really good laugh. Everyone was complaining about the film being slow, but that’s because the Spaniards are really far from any kind of different-than-mainstream cinema. They have a strong tradition of evasion and pretending always to have a good time.

SF360: What part do you feel religion is playing in your films and what role do you think it had in the culture you grew up in?

Reygadas: When you ask questions, you can only ask what are you doing here — and religion is about that, the transcendent part. Then there is the dogmatic part of religion, which is only interesting from the sociological point of view. Why are we interested in those dogmas and why do we believe them? I think Mexican society is only as religious as any other — maybe even less. But it is true that it is one of the most ritualistic ones. So everything is very present. Maybe it’s because of this mix with pre-Hispanic times, where everything was so visual, and that was a way of communicating ideas, through visuals. And the Spaniards were Latin, and so open in that sense of religion. And the mix was really strong, so you see it everywhere. But in the end, that’s just the ritual part.

I saw work by a friend very recently, about people praying. The camera was a subjective eye, for one hour of people praying. I was impressed by the fact that people really prayed like little children. All of them said things like, ‘Please take care of me, and help my father find work, and my mother to be nice, and we all want to be happy, and please look after us, God. Thank you very much. I will be good.’ No one put any weight on themselves, it was only ‘Help me God, help me God, help me find my way out.’ I did that when I was, like, 6. So I really think Mexicans are not very religious at all; they don’t feel the fear of God.

SF360: In ‘Japon’s’ bedroom scenes, and in ‘Battle in Heaven’s,’ characters are splayed out in the iconic positions of religion art. What did you mean by that? Or was it just because it’s interesting to look at?

Reygadas: No, because from a sociological point of view, I’m really surprised by the fact that people — we all feel lonely, and we need some kind of support, and therefore we need this Jesus. The line in ‘Japon’ was ‘Do you prefer Jesus, or the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe?’ He says, ‘I don’t care.’ And she says, ‘Well I prefer Jesus,’ and I don’t know what. I took that line from the idea that I observed: There is all this sexuality, and subconsciously loaded things in all these religious icons. Most men in Mexico have in their cars and private places the emblem of the Virgin, and usually women have the Christ. It’s curious that the Virgin is always very beautiful, and the Christ is very handsome, too. But this goes all the way — it’s not only in Mexico, but all over the Christian world. When you see Rubens’ ‘The Descent from the Cross,’ it’s very curious that Christ is almost the same age as his mother. His mother is always represented as if she was 35 and he is 33, you know. So there’s always this very close mix that works at I-don’t-know-what levels.

SF360: When you changed careers to become a filmmaker, what was the inspiration?  

Reygadas: I really enjoyed what I did before, and I liked it — practicing in public international law, based in armed-conflict law, and the use-of-force law, which is a very interesting part of law, because it lacks the coercive part of law. It’s very theoretical. But theory is truth, also, so it’s very interesting. It’s like condemning the invasion of Iraq — or not — so it’s really interesting to reflect upon. I worked first for the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I worked for a judge. And then, I became a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, so I worked for the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mexico, when they were discussing the International Criminal Court, which now exists, although it’s boycotted by the United States. It was a really personal thing in the sense that I thought that I needed something more exciting to do. It’s really ridiculous, but I would read, for example, a Conrad novel, and I would think — Oh, it’s a pity that I live in these times; I should have lived in those conditions, like on a boat — and I really got depressed about going to work in my suit and tie. It’s a current, underneath, that starts giving you the signals for something else. Like I would start hating the tie, and the conversations with lawyers, and then when I got into the foreign service, the idea that there are grades, like in the military, and you really go up the ladder in a very particular way. So all of the sudden I saw my life like go straight on a rail track, and that really scared me. I need to see nothing in front of me. If I see a way, and I know what’s going to happen to me in 20 years, I really get scared. Like, life disappears, because it’s all condensed, and you see it, and you know you’re going to be dead in 30, 50 years, and you know what’s going to happen. And I prefer not to know what’s going to happen. So when I decided to change, I thought, probably, I wouldn’t be able to do good films. I remember my father — when I told him I wanted to do that — he said, ‘It’s like deciding you want to be a bullfighter or a tennis player when you’re 27. You’ll never be a really good tennis player.’ Of course, you can play with your friends, but you’ll never make your life fulfilled. I decided to do it nevertheless, and I really enjoyed my decision. Now I consider myself very rich; I’m not monetarily rich, but because what I really, really, really like, is that my work’s in my mind, and wherever it goes, it comes with me. My thoughts are my work, and that’s the best part of it.

SF360: What’s your process of finding stories and filming? Do you find them, or create them?

Reygadas: The first idea is some person, and then, a landscape and atmosphere. Then, with that person and that atmosphere, everything starts adding up and sticking to it naturally. I imagine I am like him in the particular situation of life, and then I just start moving around. I remember when I wrote ‘Japon,’ I just thought of him up there on the plain lands, the badlands, and I used a hunter (that’s my father among those hunters). It was just the kind of things that would happen to him. I would just imagine I was there: Where would I go? What what would I do? I remember later, when I saw the film, and he goes up to the place, and he’s waiting for the two women to decide if he can lodge at the place, and he goes up to a cliff, and he pushes a stone, and the stone rolls down. I remember that, I don’t know why I wrote it, because I don’t think programmatically. But this is a turning point. At that place is where he’s going to commit suicide. I remember when I was writing it and shooting it, she had to interrupt just at the exact moment the rock would stop rolling. I didn’t know why. Then of course, I realized that this was because that was his life just before he decided to commit suicide, and she would be the one to stop him. It works at an absolutely unconscious level when I’m writing, and even editing. I learn a lot of things when I see it.

SF360: For ‘Battle in Heaven,’ the production-values are higher, at least in the soundscape, for instance (i.e., when the gas station is blasting Bach). Does this happen in the editing room?

Reygadas: All those things are absolutely pre-designed. Even the takes are designed that way. Like when I’m writing, I do it kind of in a trance. It’s like if you were induced to seeing visions with drugs, or hypnosis. When you are in hypnosis, or dreams, you hear/feel and everything is perfect; it’s complete. So it’s like when that happens, I just write it down, and I describe everything absolutely precisely. And then when it’s finished — in three or four days — I know I have it. And I have to materialize it afterwards.

SF360: Was it difficult filming the sex scenes?  

Reygadas: I didn’t mind at all. I really get surprised that some friends in Mexico — who are shooting video homes, films for television — are always meant to shoot sex scenes, and they’re really afraid of telling the actors to undress, etc. I don’t mind at all. I actually find it very challenging, but only as challenging as asking them to run after something, nothing special…. I’m really so determined to get what I feel for the film. With all these personal things, I know you have to do them with all the respect and taste you can to get them, but I don’t feel ashamed at all. To be honest, I think I was much more afraid of making the last shot of ‘Japon,’ or filming the horse [copulating]. These shots — we were in a room, there was no way we could fail. Those were some of the easiest shots for me.

SF360: I love the scene in ‘Battle in Heaven,’ in which two domestic laborers are stopping traffic, while Marcos’s windows are rolled up and the sound is silent, and vacuum-like, then they walk off, arm-in-arm, when their boss’s car heads down the street. It hints at the other complicated private lives that surround our protagonist’s difficult, complicated life. Is the world of the upper-class in Mexico familiar to you?

Reygadas: Sure. My parents are not rich, actually. But I do belong to the high class or whatever you want to call it, in Mexico. It’s very curious, because there’s a saying that the rich are richer when they get poor than the poor when they get rich. I know that class and that world very well. Curiously enough, I know the other side, too. Most people remain in the circle in which they were born. But I was very interested in everything. I knew the countryside very well when I was a little boy, and I feel very much at home in that place. I like those people very very much, and as much as I dislike some as individuals, I feel well with their ways of life. In ‘Battle in Heaven,’ Marcos is a very close friend. He worked for the Ministry of Culture as a driver. And my father worked for the MOC some 10 years ago. And Marcos drove for him for 2 or 3 years. They stopped working together 10 years ago, and I’ve kept very closely in touch with Marcos. I go to his house two or three times a year for parties and lunch, in the outskirts of Mexico City. I really enjoy being with him. I told you in the beginning, there’s landscape and a person. This time it was Marcos. I just wanted him to be in the film. I really love the way he is in the world.

SF360: Is it true, his wife doesn’t know about what his role involved?

Reygadas: He told her that it’s all special digital effects.

SF360: At times, I wondered….

Reygadas: It’s curious, but cinema changes a lot of things. You can be fat and it doesn’t show, or the other way around….This is the first time someone asked me in an interview and I actually gave an answer to it. But people often ask it.

SF360: Were those real people you filmed in the subway in ‘Battle in Heaven’?

Reygadas: When we were shooting that shot, we left the aisles open. Some people are staged, because I needed it for the camera movement. But all the people that you see, I saw them in the Metro, in previous days when we were scouting. The guy with the bag for his pee, I saw him and asked him to come back. The guy in the trains with the mask on, I saw him coming for the first shot — but he was traveling on that train.

That happens all over the world, especially here. It’s only when you see it in a film that you really notice it. Today I was walking in San Francisco, and I regretted not carrying my camera around, because I saw some characters that I’ve never seen in film, and I saw them all today. Like maybe 20 people, if they were in a film, everyone would think they were a joke.