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.
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.
Instead, he prefers to keep his expenses low and his aspirations high. The budget for "Japon" was a mere $150,000, but Reygadas gave the film's wide-angled landscapes an extraordinarily rich, multi-textured feel by shooting on 16-millimeter CinemaScope.
"I'm not an entertainer, at all," he says. "It's like a painting ... I think when Van Gogh painted he just was thinking of the best way he could paint that and his own feeling. And of course this was to make pleasure for others, but he wasn't thinking like, 'What's the trend now, what do people want to see? Is it green or yellow that is the preferred color nowadays?' "
Reygadas believes that over time, cinema has strayed from its roots as an essentially visual medium into narrative banality. In his own films, images often speak much louder than words. His human characters tend to express themselves through actions and subtle facial movements. A major plot shift may be marked by nothing more than a character's haunted glance.
"He makes a film the way a photographer would," compliments John Cooper, director of programming for the Sundance Festival. And audiences trust Reygadas' sometimes playful way with images, Cooper says, "because you feel you're in the hands of someone who knows what he's doing."
Whether they dwell in the vast, arid landscapes of the rural Mexican state of Hidalgo ("Japon") or the shrill chaos of Mexico City ("Batalla"), Reygadas' characters often are dwarfed and overwhelmed by their surroundings. The sense of man's relative puniness in the cosmos, and his constant labors to find meaning within it, looms large in Reygadas' elegiac artistry. Their existential struggles may lead these characters either to rediscover their sense of purpose ("Japon") or to commit unspeakable crimes ("Batalla"). Either way, they exist in worlds that are as much metaphysical or mental states as actual places.
A minimalist approach