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For a film shot almost entirely on location in Hidalgo, an arid cluster of canyons and villages 100 miles north of Mexico City, the title of 31-year-old Carlos Reygadas' striking feature debut Japón (Japan) seems as arbitrary and willfully absurd as Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And yet it's strangely apropos, too, the perfect description of a sex-and-death Catholic allegory that's simultaneously evocative and obscure, with symbolic meanings that are hard to tease out from all the ethnographic bric-a-brac. On the most fundamental level, Reygadas' simple, affecting story of salvation and rebirth ties as naturally to the "rising sun" on the Japanese flag as the themes in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy relate to the French. But what to make of all the perplexing incidental shots that are thrown into the mix, like a studied take of two horses copulating or a black beetle kicked around by the first drops of a rainstorm? Reygadas cites directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog as key influences, a shotgun marriage that accounts for the film's compelling oddity: The austere pace, religious iconography, and 360-degree pans recall Tarkovsky's masterpiece Andrei Rublev, but its distinct feeling for the tenor of life in a rugged, exotic landscape draw it closer to a Herzog documentary. Shot in richly textured, 16mm CinemaScope, with equally attentive sound design, Japón stars Alejandro Ferretis as a middle-aged painter and big-city intellectual who travels to a remote canyon with the intention of committing suicide, for reasons unknown. Before he ends his life, Ferretis wants some space to clear his head and achieve a sense of serenity, so he bunks in a barn owned by Magdalena Flores, an elderly woman with infinite generosity and deep religious convictions. When Flores' oily nephew (Martín Serrano) tries to level the property for personal gain, Ferretis snaps out of his stupor and rushes to her defense, but in a stunning act of self-sacrifice, she makes it clear that he's the one who needs saving. Taken at face value, the idea of an old, uneducated woman from the country proving wiser than a cultured artist from the big city could hardly be more clichéd, yet it grows into something much more mysterious and dignified in the telling. With their craggy features and lack of pretense, the non-professional actors bring an unadorned naturalism and authenticity to their performances that meshes nicely with Reygadas' sense of place, which is alternately intimate and magisterial. A dense, challenging work by any measure, Japón snakes toward a justly celebrated final shot that's technically astonishing and immensely powerful, cementing the arrival of a promising new talent.


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