“Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images”
A black square fades to distorted images with blurred colors and lights. A distorted sound catches our attention. A few seconds later, we know that the images and sounds are those of cars waiting inside a tunnel. As they move, we see a white light in the distance, like the light of a near-death experience. A mother-image gives birth to a magically sublime story about a trip to death and the unavoidable encounter with life--and vice-versa. According to Jean-François Lyotard in Postmodernism, A Reader (1992, Ed. Thomas Docherty), the sublime can’t be put in words, representations or conventional forms. Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas does a great job in his opera prima representing the sublime with a defiant cinematic language. Released in 2003, Japón (Japan) features a nameless antihero (Alejandro Ferretis). Reygadas said that he wanted to have his film untitled too--perhaps the sublime can’t be named either. With a rough profile and an arthritic limp, this man in his fifties travels to a small and special village deep in the Mexican hills, to kill himself. In that difficult trip he meets Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a woman in her eighties that invites him as a guest to her humble home. Before arriving to the small village in the State of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City, a hunter tells him: -“The devil loads weapons and idiots shoot them…” The man won’t be able to commit suicide. He is not an idiot, and he is blessed finding in the elderly and extremely kind Ascen a stunning salvation.
The constantly and marvelous spiraling camera movements shot by the Argentine cinematographer Diego Martínez Vignatti (also in his first long feature) causes no dizziness. On the contrary, the viewer can admire in the midst each amazing spot. As Reygadas said: “…I wanted to show all around… even in unmoving objects the world continues.” Shot in 16mm with anamorphic lens (another distortion of reality), the camera shakes during long trips; alternating between stillness and movement, sometimes blinding us with bright white light, other times with absolute black darkness. Similarly, Kasimir Malevich represented with white or black squares the sublime or un-representable, like emptiness or infinite. Making it impossible to see, it pleases only by causing pain. According to Kant’s aesthetics, beautiful can’t be something defined “a priori”. He argues that the sublime is an emotion that carries with it both pleasure and pain. With this ambiguity the Man and Ascen develop a powerful relationship as difficult to describe or show as the sublime itself. Reygadas makes, as Lyotard says, an allusion to the unpresentable (Kant’s “formlessness”) by means of visible representations. In a strange and almost magical effect the trees seem to shake and dance with the music, with a nature more alive than ever against the presence of death, evoking the unseen.
The unavoidable passage of time, roughness, memories, and permanent obstacles are symbolized through stones, beginning with the opening Japón title over a stone-strewn route. The man walks through those stones during his daily walks, with a sacrifice necessary to reach the sublime. Ascen, not only generous but almost holy, became an object of a paradox between sin and redemption while she accepts the man’s proposal of sexual intercourse before he abandons the village. A complex link is traced between the scene of two horses mating in front of many children, and the sexual scene between Ascen and the man, joining the private and the public, instinct and intention. She accepts but only if the act is postponed for the next day. He prepares at home anxiously and she goes to the church. Like a virgin, she appears in her home naked. And one of the most strange, strongly emotional, beautiful and tense sexual scenes of all times puts us on the limit again: pain and pleasure, rejection but desire, ugliness and beauty, anxiety and relaxation. Like in a first sexual encounter ever, difficult and emotionally painfully, love and lust go together, and guilt appears. He cries as a boy in his naked mother’s arms, while the Oedipus myth emerges. Ascen saves the man with a Christian sacrifice and reward, and she saves herself with her last opportunity for pleasure. Death and life merge. In one second, he is thirty years older. She becomes thirty years younger. This event marks a new destiny that drives them in opposite directions: he survives and she dies.
Constantly reaching for nature, from the beginning the presence of dead animals offer the viewer not only more death but also an immediate contact with a realism that becomes postmodernist by challenging some cinematic rules. Robert Bresson talked about actors only as human models in Notes on the Cinematographer (1975): “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me, and above all, what they do not suspect is in them.” The film was totally performed by non-actors; the landscapes, weather events, and virginity take us back to basics. With a crass treatment between the village inhabitants--and the animals--as a natural law, the film chafes another challenging limit between the documentary and the fiction form. First we see a villager explaining something difficult to understand almost directing his view to the camera. Then the arrival of more residents to be witnesses gives more raw beauty and awkwardness to the strange moment. A long line of kids passes in front of the man, looking also to the camera, symbolizing hope in some way.
Lyotard says that “the avant-gardes are perpetually flushing out artifices of presentation which make it possible to subordinate thought to the gaze and to turn it away from the unpresentable.” Reygadas, in his own avant-garde and defying another rule, includes a great moment where a drunken person not only sings so out of tune--that the song becomes also sublime--but also he says in search of more drinks: -“They don’t invite us to anything… the people from the film.” More strange moments occur, declaring that life in itself is mysterious and many things have no explanation. The man is a painter that doesn’t stop painting, maybe as a way to survive. Ascen discovers a book about paintings. The man asks, “Which is the drawing you said you like so much?” Ascen chooses an abstract one with white squares (what looks to be a Malevich painting). He laughs. “I love comics”, she explains. This dialogue, one of the strangest in the film, takes us to a surreal trip, like when they suddenly take each of their hands in front of the fire, or when the man fails at suicide and falls aside a dead horse while rain mixes with blood.
An angelical film score perfectly chosen strengthens these scenes: Johann Sebastian Bach (from "St. Matthew's Passion"), Arvo Pärt (from "Miserere" and "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten") and Dmitri Shostakovich (from "Symphony No.15, Op.14"). Reygadas explains that he was always thinking about sound. With models like Andrei Tarkovsky being a master in subjective sound, and Abbas Kiarostami a master in objective sound, Reygadas goes beyond, constantly crossing between the score being listened by the man or Ascen on headphones, to the music as film score. Then, it's suddenly broken by a hunter screaming to the kids: “Shut up we are trying to listen to some music.” The silence becomes present too, especially when images are everything: the man masturbates dreaming of a strange woman while kissing Ascen on a beach. Later we see the reality of Ascen kissing Jesus Imagery. Love and religion, nature and death, landscapes and paintings melted in a new dimension, all of them touching the sublime as we witness the raw beauty from the sky.
A person with disabilities comes to Ascen -confirming her power to save- asking for help to tie his shoes, and then we see him eating an apple with his feet. Disability is shown as normality in a place where everybody has his own disabilities. The man travels to end his own, but finds life. Ascen travels in search of more life and finds death in a trip that comes full circle; with different landscapes and a new point of view, a trip to a new unavoidable destiny. Simple in dialogue but complex in emotion, Reygadas’s work is a reflection of his main film influences, as he said: “you got so much emotion watching a car from a distance moving around… there’s a lot of things happening there… much more than two cars chasing each other and burning bridges, and crushing, and running over people”. Simple things are kings in the indomitable terrain of the sublime. A western hara-kiri, a source of living haikus, love for an elderly, quietness, vastness, maybe a disconnected title, a place far away, a rising sun after the storm, and mainly cinema itself imposing art over film industry laws, convert this film into Japanese philosophy. In his book Japan: Strategy of the Unseen (1987), Michel Random recounts his visit to the house of an important former General from the Japanese Army. He found a variety of artifacts from diverse countries. Then he asked the General: “What is Japanese here?” The General replied: “The invisible”… like the sublime.