With only three feature-length films in his curriculum – Japón (2003), Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005) and Stellet licht (Silent Light, 2007) – Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas has become one of the most prominent directors in contemporary world cinema. The critical reception of his work seems to be unanimous at least in two respects: that these are films concerned with a metaphysical dimension and that this is the result of particular cinematic influences: Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky, and to a lesser extent, Roberto Rossellini. (1) These influences are reinforced by Reygadas himself:

I like Roberto Rossellini very much, and the conditions in which he had to shoot with whatever was there. Rossellini was a master at using the world as it is to create everything he needed for his stories. For me, Dreyer is also great. Ordet [1954] is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen in my life, a miracle of film. Bresson is also a master, especially in the way he works with non-actors and uses sound. A Man Escaped [1956] is a personal favourite. Tarkovsky was the one to really open my eyes. When I saw his films I realized that emotion could come directly out of the sound and the image, and not necessarily from the story-telling. (2)

The realist techniques privileged by these directors are, furthermore, easily identified in Reygadas’s films. His use of real locations, for example, can be seen as reminiscent of Rossellini’s. One needs only consider, for example, the scenes of actual religious processions in both Rossellini’s Viaggo in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1953) and Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven. The mechanic quality of the non-professional acting in Reygadas’s work and its aversion to psychological causality reminds one of the work of Bresson. His preference for parsimonious long takes, open landscapes and religious music evokes the hallmarks of Tarkovsky’s cinema. Moreover, Reygadas reinforces this indebtedness through filmic citations, an obvious example being the way he replays Dreyer’s Ordet’s ending in Silent Light. His affinity with these directors is equally verifiable in the themes running through his works. Like a considerable part of the work of these now canonical filmmakers, Reygadas’s three films have religion at their core.

Yet, exactly how close is Reygadas to the aesthetics of Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini and Tarkovsky? Despite their differences, the works of these directors have often been grouped together under the rubric of ‘transcendental cinema’. Their attention to the physical was always subjected to its link with the spiritual world, the notion that one can only arrive at the essence of things through attention to their material surface. That is to say, they subscribed to the idea that the recording of reality through film was a gateway to the metaphysical dimension lurking underneath it. Thus, Dreyer maintained that ‘it is not the things in reality that the director should be interested in but, rather, the spirit in and behind the things’. (3) Bresson in his turn postulated that ‘your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism) but in the ineffable that they will disengage’. (4) Similarly, Tarkovsky argued that ‘[t]he image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit’. (5)

Rossellini holds germinal importance in the emergence of Italian Neorealism thanks, amongst other things, to his transcendentalist discourse. As Millicent Marcus tells us, the realism put into practice by Neorealism was the product of amalgamated realist tendencies. Whereas it was certainly inflected with the scientific drive of nineteenth-century French naturalism, it nonetheless retained the ‘Aristotelian belief in a permanent, ideal order inherent in the world of matter and men’. (6) In this perspective, the Neorealist project ‘lives in the simultaneous claims of absolute, scientific objectivity on the one hand, and a quest for underlying patterns of significance on the other’. (7) In order to combine these opposing traditions, Neorealism rejected the anti-metaphysical stance of a naturalist aesthetic and invested the material world with a higher, morally significant, order. It is this moral impulse that prompted Rossellini, defining ‘the realist film’, to say that it ‘does not stop at surface appearances, but seeks out the most subtle strands of the soul’. (8)

This moral thrust informing a filmic approach towards reality found in the writings of French film critic André Bazin its most eloquent defender. Bazin’s well-known praise of Neorealist films is due to the fact they materialise his philosophical beliefs. As Peter Wollen has noted, ‘Bazin was deeply influenced by [Roger] Mounier’s insistence that the interior and the exterior, the spiritual and the physical, the ideal and the material were indissolubly linked.’ (9) Thus, writing on Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Jean of Arc, 1928), Bazin’s praise of this ‘documentary of faces’ was justified on the grounds of ‘the extreme spiritual purification’ such ‘scrupulous realism of the camera as microscope’ offers. (10) In the films of Rossellini he saw ‘a world of pure acts, unimportant in themselves but preparing the way (as if unbeknownst to God himself) for the sudden dazzling revelation of their meaning’ (11); in those of Bresson ‘the outward revelation of an interior destiny’. (12)

Yet Bazin’s interest in film remained primarily within the realm of aesthetics. But his belief in the metaphysical qualities of film, informed by a phenomenological approach, was expanded in the work of his disciple, the Catholic priest Amédée Ayfre, who goes on to equate a phenomenological apprehension of the world through film with religious experience. For him, Neorealist films’ focus on material reality discloses ‘the human face of the transcendent Mystery of God’ (13); Rossellini’s ‘concrete attitude’ takes the viewer to the realm of ‘metaphysics’ and proposes ‘the mystery of existence’ (14); while in the work of Bresson ‘[b]eyond the surface…one can glimpse another dimension: that of the soul’. (15)

This explicitness while placing phenomenological and religious experience on an equal footing was further developed by Henri Agel, particularly in his book Le Cinéma et le Sacré, which expands many ideas put forth by Bazin and Ayfre. (16) More recently, Michael Bird has conceptualised this theoretical approach as film’s ‘hierophanous’ quality. Borrowing Mircea Eliade’s term ‘hierophany’ – ‘the disclosure of the transcendent or sacred precisely through the material of reality’ – Bird, following the steps of Ayfre and Agel, coins the term ‘spiritual realism’ for films ‘in which the sacred is sought at the depth in reality itself’. (17)

Does Reygadas attempt to replicate the spiritual and moral thrust of this cohort of directors? To my mind, his films pose a different problem: though they are concerned with the idea of transcendence, there is in Reygadas’ work what I call ‘a surplus of materiality’ that cannot point beyond, to an ineffable realm, simply because it cannot but forcefully point back to itself. Here the material often ceases to be the means for the attainment of a spiritual dimension to become itself the focus of attention. This surplus of materiality is encapsulated in the notion of flesh. Reygadas is interested in situations in which the flesh is subjected to maximum exposure and cracked open in its irreducible bodily aspect: rituals, sexual acts and death. It is this marked concern with carnality, and its intersection with religiosity, that complicates the transcendentalism of Reygadas and sets him apart from his cinematic influences, as we shall see.

The ungovernable flesh

Reygadas’ debut feature-length film, Japón, was shot entirely on location in Ayacatzintla, a village of less than 170 inhabitants and located in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. (18) It tells the story of a white, middle-aged, unnamed man (Alejandro Ferretis), presumably a painter, who leaves Mexico City in order to end with his own life in this remote area. There he seeks lodging and encounters Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a septuagenarian Indian widow who agrees to shelter him in the hut attached to her ramshackle house overlooking the Canyon landscapes. The film unfolds by showing its two protagonists in quotidian activities: the man having his breakfast at Ascen’s house, sitting in the sun observing the vast mountains, climbing up and down the hillsides; Ascen washing up her clothes on the edge of a river, cleaning up her house, etc. In fact most of Japón’s scenes simply follow the man’s perambulations across the rugged landscapes. These lengthy scenes of the man’s solitary wanderings, in addition to reflecting his existential dilemma, produce a sense of delay in the film and undermine narrative momentum, as it postpones his awaited suicide.

In this respect, Japón conforms to one of the features Gilles Deleuze saw as the essence of modern cinema, namely the emergence of a new type of character that, rather than being inserted into a causal logic in accordance with our ‘sensory-motor’ faculties, can no longer act or react but simply record and sense what they see. Deleuze’s account of this new narrative framework is remarkably fitting as a description of Japón’s structure and protagonist:

These are pure optical and sound situations, in which the character does not know how to respond, abandoned spaces in which he ceases to experience and to act so that he enters into flight, goes on a trip, comes and goes, vaguely indifferent to what happens to him, undecided as to what must be done. But he has gained in an ability to see what he has lost in action or reaction: he SEES so that the viewer’s problem becomes ‘What is there to see in the image?’ (and not now ‘What we are going to see in the next image?’) (19)

As the man spends time perambulating up and down the hillsides, he begins to question his suicidal ideas and finds himself with a strong sexual desire in need of satiation.

This sexual awakening is underlined throughout the film by a series of subjective shots that reveals he is staring at Ascen’s buttocks and breast. In one suggestive scene we see him masturbating and picturing in his mind Ascen kissing a young woman (the film leaves unexplained who this woman is). At first these occurrences appear to underline the man’s desire towards Ascen in particular. But this proves to be not the case for in another scene he stares both at the attendant’s buttocks and the picture of a naked woman in a newspaper. The man ends up asking Ascen if she would be willing to have sexual intercourse with him, stressing the ‘need’ of such an act as a means to obtain the spiritual appeasement he longs for. Ascen, albeit surprised with such a proposition, complies with the man and the two of them have sex the next day.

The man’s uncontrollable sexual desires

The depiction of Ascen in the film repeatedly evokes the figure of Jesus Christ. When she first appears in the film, for instance, Ascen emphatically instructs the man that her name is Ascension, which means, she stresses, ‘Christ ascending into heaven with nobody’s help’. We also see her in the church with a friend whilst this scene proceeds by interweaving close-up shots of her face with the statue of the crucified Jesus. Ascen’s simplicity and goodness, attributes associated with saintliness, also suggest she embodies the man’s salvation. This is exemplified by her taking care of the man, such as when she washes his clothes and cleans his room. Finally, the only plausible explanation for Ascen’s accepting to have sex with the man would be her desire to endow the man with the appeasement he seeks, which further reinforces her character as a saintly figure.

Ascen and Jesus

This depiction is ultimately perfected in Japón’s denouement. The film ends with her mysterious death while in the back of her nephew’s truck, an accident which follows up her sexual encounter with the man. This event reiterates the parallelism between her and Jesus Christ since the film leaves in suspension whether the man will commit his planned suicide as he sobs in her house while learning about the accident. We could thus say that there is a biblical parable running through the film as her death evokes the foundation myth of Christianity. Like Jesus, Ascen dies in order to save the man’s soul. But what should be noted is that the man’s spiritual regeneration is effected through the carnality of sexual intercourse. And this carnality is here emphasised by Reygadas’s option to depict the act in its explicitness.

This equation of sexual intercourse with spiritual salvation seems to have been lifted from Tarkovsky’s Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986). Japón’s nod to this film is evident in his use of the same extract of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Mattheus Passion, featured at the end of The Sacrifice. The visual composition of one of its first scenes is also evocative of Tarkovsky’s film’s opening as we see the man with a child by an enormous tree (see pictures below).

In The Sacrifice Alexander (Erland Josephson), informed by his friend Otto (Allan Edwall) that his servant Maria (Gudrún Gísladóttir) is a ‘good witch’, ends up having sex with her as a means to rediscover his spirituality. But Tarkovsky is careful to tone down the sexual act in the scene so as to heighten its symbolic significance. Not only is this scene devoid of graphic sex but it also contains dream-like overtones as their attached bodies inexplicably float up. Moreover, it stresses a maternal bond between the two characters as Maria cuddles Alexander’s head and reassures him that ‘everything is going to be all right’. By comparison, in Reygadas’ version of the spiritual-sexual act, we are, firstly, unable to ascertain that there is an affectionate bond between Ascen and the man: we need only remember the aforesaid occurrences which indicate that the man’s sexual drive is a purely physiological need. Secondly, by means of its graphic frankness the sexual event here stands out for its resolutely carnal aspect, which overrides its symbolic connotations.

The spiritual-sexual act in The Sacrifice (above) and Japón (below)

In Japón this intimation of religious with sexual rapture is not restricted to this sexual encounter but a recurring motif throughout. Another example occurs when Ascen casually tells the man that in her village men tend to like more the Virgin whereas women prefer Jesus. She goes on to cite a story of an imprisoned nephew who was caught masturbating on a picture of the Virgin. In this context, the gendered and personified Catholic symbols are seen as sexually arousing. This likening of spiritual communion with sexual intercourse points to a tradition within Christianity in which the perfect rapport with a male-gendered God, or Jesus Christ, is rendered in terms reminiscent of an orgasm. The so-called ‘religious ecstasy’ in Christianism, characterised as a state of spiritual rapture, intimates sexual connotations. This emphasis on the carnality constituent of Catholic signifiers, and the intersection of sexuality and religiosity, would gain equally visible contours in Reygadas’s second feature-length film.

Battle in Heaven

Like Japón, Battle in Heaven has a male protagonist, Marcos, who is unable to contain his sexual desires while also in search of spiritual purification. Marcos is an obese native Mexican Indian in his mid-30s who works as a driver to a general. He has been involved in the kidnap of a child of a friend of his and the baby has died (the reasons for the kidnap are left unexplained). He now faces the dilemma of turning himself in to the police and confides the whole story to Ana, his employer’s daughter. Ana is a rich, young and beautiful girl who prostitutes herself (a situation thus reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, 1967), and with whom he maintains occasional sexual encounters. As the film unfolds against the backdrop of the Virgin of Guadalupe week in Mexico City, Marcos’s spiritual turmoil becomes increasingly visible. After inexplicably stabbing Ana to death, he embarks on a flagellation ritual in a religious procession, ultimately collapsing dead inside the Basilica of Guadalupe.

Marcos gradually undergoes a change in his attitude towards religion. At first he seems to embody disbelief in it. This is what happens, for example, in the scene in which he chances upon a long religious procession and comments to the gas station attendant that ‘they’re all sheep’. But as the story develops, the weight of his criminal deed makes him rethink his position towards religion. The growing weight of spirituality in Marcos’ life is underlined in the sequence in which he is away in the countryside for the day: it is here that the possibility of a metaphysical redemption materialises for him. As Marcos makes his way into the woods and recedes from the camera, fog starts rapidly drifting in until the woods farther away becomes no longer visible. As he becomes the only discernible figure in the frame and walks into the mist, one cannot but infer an allusion to the Heaven of the film’s title. This allusion is then reinforced when, a few shots later, we see Marcos reaching the top of a hill where a wooden cross stands overlooking the countryside.

Towards the transcendent

But, if anything, Battle in Heaven will bring to the fore Reygadas’s interest in the human flesh while again likening it to the ritualistic arena of religion. This is what happens towards the end of the film when Marcos embarks on the Guadalupe procession and enters into a self-flagellation trance. On his knees, topless and hooded, he makes his way to the Basilica and there he collapses dead. Marcos’s self-flagellation epitomises the Christian idea of carnal self-sacrifice. And like the equation of sexual intercourse with religious rapture in Japón, the carnality intrinsic to this practice reveals the profound reliance of Catholic metaphors upon bodily experiences.

Carnal sacrifice

Battle in Heaven’s emphasis on carnality is further enhanced by the pivotal role played by sexual desires in Marcos’s life. He is seen not only having sex with both Ana and his wife but also masturbating, and these events are depicted in graphic detail. In fact we could say that Reygadas’s interest in the flesh is fully materialised in the corpulent figures of Marcos Hernandez and Berta Ruiz. When Marcos and his wife are having sex, for example, the film employs extreme close-ups that scrutinise their excess of flesh. (20) This scene is also significant for it encapsulates the theme at the heart of Reygadas’s oeuvre as it proceeds by juxtaposing the sexual act with shots of a Jesus Christ painting hung on the bedroom’s wall. This emphasis on the body of Christ comments on the carnality constitutive of Catholicism’s lush imagery. By alternating close-ups of Christ’s wounded body, from which blood gushes out, with those of Marcos’s and his wife’s rotund figures, this scene establishes an interesting analogy between the pious and the grotesque. Indeed, the obese figures of Marcos and his wife conform to Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of the grotesque body as a corporeal mass in constant outgrowth, hyperbolic, excessive; ‘the body enlarged to gigantic dimensions.’ (21)

The body of Christ; the Grotesque body

This excess of carnality also brings to mind what Jean-Paul Sartre defines as ‘the obscene’. Sartre argues that the ‘graceful body’ is the body which manages to conceal its fleshiness, that is, when its ‘facticity…is clothed and disguised by grace’. At the opposite side of the spectrum, Sartre goes on to say, resides the ‘obscene body’, the body which cannot but reveal itself as flesh, as ‘an unjustifiable facticity’: that which has ‘the passivity of a thing’. He illustrates his hypothesis by suggesting that the obscene is most likely to appear in the obese body: the body with ‘a deformity in its structure (for example the proliferation of the fat cells) which exhibits a super-abundant facticity’. (22) Sartre’s elaborations on what he terms the body’s facticity are elucidating as regards Reygadas’s take on materiality and spirituality. For he argues that ‘the obscene’ appears when the body (or part of it) is made flesh and flesh only, a flesh thus devoid of transcendentalist connotations. It is this ‘obscenity’ of the flesh that destabilises the transcendentalism of Reygadas’s films.

‘The Obscene’

Silent Light

Silent Light, Reygadas’s third film, reiterates the thematic consistency of his oeuvre. Again, we have a man confronted with a carnal dilemma and whose attitude towards religion undergoes modifications as the film unfolds. The film tells the story of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), the head of a family in a Mennonite community who falls in love with another woman, Marianne (María Pankratz), and finds himself in the midst of a moral conflict. He is honest about the romance with his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), who suffers in silence and awaits her husband to come to terms with the situation on his own. Unable to contain the moral pressures of the adultery, both Johan and Marianne decide to end their romance. But the grief triggered by this disruption in their marriage causes Esther to abruptly die under a torrential rain. It is then that the miracle happens: after being kissed by Marianne on her mouth, Esther inexplicably rises up from the coffin and awakes from death.

It is telling that Reygadas chose to depict this adultery tale within a religious community whose defining trait is its rigorous asceticism and whose ethics of marriage vehemently condemns divorce, let alone adultery. (23) For despite the fact it is shorn of sexual explicitness, Silent Light is, of all Reygadas’ films, the one that most explicitly mobilises a dichotomy between flesh and spirit. Johan finds himself torn apart between the duties his religion entails and the fleshly temptations which have suddenly erupted in his life and which are equated with evil as his father warns him that it ‘is the work of the enemy’. This opposition between religious asceticism and carnal desires is further highlighted in the contrast between the relationship between Johan and Esther and between him and Marianne. Johan and Esther are depicted in familial situations indicative of a wedlock consumed by a rigorous routine and work ethic, prescribed by the Anabaptist doctrines.

Conversely, Johan and Marianne’s encounters are marked by their physical contact. The most eloquent example is the scene in which they have their last sexual encounter. The high camera angle over Marianne lying in bed provides the viewer with Johan’s point-of-view. As the camera erratically moves back and forth, thus simulating the act of penetration, Pankratz looks into the camera and grunts. What is remarkable here is not only the audacity contained in Pankratz, a Mennonite non-professional actress, simulating an orgasm directly to the ‘viewer’, put in the position of the man who is penetrating her. It is also the proximity to her flesh afforded by the camera. Moreover, the scene unfolds by alternating extreme close-ups of the profile of their faces, which reveal, particularly in Fehr’s face, drops of sweat exuding through the pores of his reddened skin and invite for the viewer a sensuous apprehension of its moist surface. So make no mistake: Silent Light shuns away from frontal nudity and sexual explicitness. But the emphasis on the flesh remains.

The Flesh Remains

As for Silent Light’s much-commented citation of the ending of Dreyer’s Ordet. Reygadas’ decision could be seen as a desire to grant his film the ‘spiritual credibility’ lacking in his previous works. For Dreyer’s film, the screen adaptation of Danish playwright and priest Kaj Munk’s play of 1932, is perhaps the metaphysical film par excellence. Silent Light cites Ordet throughout: Johan’s name alludes to the character of Johannes in Dreyer’s film; the scene of Johan’s father inexplicably stopping the ticking clock echoes the exact same gesture performed by Anders in Ordet’s final scene; the sequence of Esther’s funeral in which the community mourns her death by singing religious songs evokes the same occurrence in Ordet. Yet these events acquire an extra significance only in retrospect. It is the sequence of Esther dead in the coffin and the ensuing miracle that bridges these two works. Reygadas ensures that the visual composition of this scene is almost identical to that of Ordet’s most famous shot. Silent Light reproduces the positioning of the coffin at the centre of the screen between two tall candle sticks and Dreyer’s film’s celebrated ‘milky whiteness(24) by shooting in a fully white room.

Silent Light’s nod to Ordet

But if Silent Light is certainly indebted to Ordet, one must also note their dissimilarities. Ordet’s fundamentally religious plot, its emphasis on the power of faith, in short, its endorsement of a Christian theology, are entirely absent in Silent Light. Whereas religion is present in Reygadas’ film, it figures as the backdrop against which the most mundane of stories unfold. It is the paradoxical mundanity of an adultery tale told within an orthodox religious community that makes Silent Light’s originality. Unlike Ordet, nowhere in Silent Light is the characters’ belief in God or their faith in religion put to test or brought to the fore: the film is unconcerned with these questions. Consider also the miraculous ending in both films. In Ordet it is the logical culmination of the theme of religious faith, which pervades the film. Silent Light’s appropriation of this ending is telling not only with regards to the de-contextualisation it performs but also to the new element it introduces into the event: Esther’s resurrection inexplicably takes place only after Marianne kisses her on her mouth. The obviousness of Ordet’s ultimate Christian symbolisation is thwarted in favour of a gesture that connotes a twisted version of this miracle. Indeed, more than the idea of resurrection, this scene evokes a fairy tale trope: the prince who awakens the sleeping beauty with a kiss.

The miraculous kiss

Like Reygadas’ previous films, Silent Light is filled with discernible Christian signifiers which are either twisted or else presented with an indifference to the moral codes inscribed in them. It appropriates the ending of a film in which, to use David Bordwell’s apt expression, ‘virtually every gesture…is freighted with Christian significance’ (25) to inject into it a destabilising ambivalence. Reygadas’ ‘carnal spirituality’ is here materialised in the kiss between these two women as it enters into a process of dissonance with the Christian symbolisation within which it is inscribed. It certainly is a milder version of Reygadas’ previously more explicit choices. But rather than representing a more earnest move towards the metaphysical, Silent Light only reiterates the paradoxical notion of a transcendentalism always already tainted with carnality.

Geographies of the Earth, Geographies of the Flesh

‘In my view you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it’

Émile Zola

On the one hand, the work of Reygadas is indebted to a cinematic realist tradition that aimed at transcending the material surface of reality through attention to this very surface. On the other, Reygadas complicates this transcendentalism by giving attention to that which cannot but deny transcendence, namely the carnality of the body. Is it thus not the case that this ‘carnal spirituality’ results from the handling of two very different, often opposing, but nonetheless long-established aesthetics of realism? One that aspires to a transcendental realm whilst the other negates it through a scientific approach? One that is, in effect, Aristotelian, because ‘unwilling to remain at the level of surface appearances’, which we would thus call ‘classical’, while the other comprises ‘a strictly materialistic approach to the human condition’, which we would call ‘naturalist’? (26)

As is well known, Naturalism as conceived by the nineteenth-century French literary movement and more specifically its leading figure, Émile Zola, championed a rationalist and empirical mode of thought. Man and nature were to be studied according to observational methods which were in turn deemed sufficient to explain the laws of the universe. As Lilian R. Furst explains, a naturalist world in its philosophical sense is essentially ‘a world devoid of transcendental, metaphysical or divine forces.’ (27) Of course, Reygadas is a modern filmmaker and does not strictly reproduce the aesthetics of Naturalism, which was the fruit of a particular conjunction: the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of Positivism in philosophy, Darwin’s evolutionist theories, etc. Still, the literary movement provides a useful framework for a better grasp of his work.

On the most immediate level, for example, Reygadas’s films share with the movement an emphasis on individuals as (un)governed by their flesh: as we have seen, at the core of his films there stands a man unable to tame his lust. This is not to mention the character of Ana in Battle in Heaven who also seems to be wholly driven by sexual desires, exemplified by her sensual demeanour and the fact that she prostitutes herself, it appears, for the sake of pleasure. The similarities are clear: to cite Zola, we need only consider his portrayal of ‘individuals existing under the sovereign dominion of their nerves and blood, devoid of free will and drawn into every act of their lives by the inescapable promptings of the flesh(28) to verify Reygadas’s adherence to the themes privileged by the movement.

The naturalist principles of Reygadas are further recognised in his concern with the materiality of harsh environments. In Battle in Heaven, for example, Mexico City appears as an oppressively gigantic megalopolis. This is conveyed through recurring images of traffic-jammed avenues, packed subways and multitudes of people making their way to the Basilica. In Japón, Ayacatzintla is depicted in its poverty, ruthless environmental conditions and wildness, a depiction which thus encapsulates the notion of Nature not as a bucolic realm but, rather, in true naturalistic fashion, as an inhospitable setting. This naturalist depiction is further identified in the film’s emphasis on animal cruelty and death. (29) An example is the scene in which the man approaches the Canyon and helps a boy pluck a bird’s head off. We also see the man inside a butcher shop whilst the camera hovers over the raw meat on display and, later, his finding of a horse’s half-eaten carcass at the top of a hill.

The undisguised flesh

But Reygadas’s films’ affinities with the movement go beyond thematic similarities. The close-ups of the human skin in his work could be seen as the visual equivalents of a naturalist rhetoric whose cinematic essence lurked underneath it. In their quest for a strictly physical world, the Naturalists resorted to a descriptive language that would render, to use Furst’s expression, ‘photographic details’ (30) of the material surface of things and beings. Reygadas realises the scientificism of Naturalism by using the camera as a microscope, dissecting the human body in its minute detail.

This microscopic framing is identified, for example, in the recurrence of extreme close-ups of faces in his three films. But Reygadas’s concern with the flesh, as we have seen, encompasses the whole human body. At times, the proximity of the camera to bodies in his films threatens to disfigure the representational legibility of the image so as to foreground its material texture. This is what happens, for example, when Mushkadiz’s dreadlocked hair, framed from too close a distance, mutates itself into an entangled web of gigantic strands. This use of close-ups as a means to foreground ‘material presence’ brings to mind what Laura U. Marks has conceptualised as ‘haptic visuality’: images which emphasise the tactility of people and things. (31) This haptic quality is also identified in the shot of Ana’s genitalia, which, occupying the entire screen, is magnified to such an extent that it is the porosity of her skin and the texture of her pubic hair which stand out (see pictures below).

Camera as microscope: dissecting the body

Reygadas’s preference for extreme close-ups, however, extrapolates the scientific imperatives of a naturalist stance and connects him to fundamentally modernist concerns. Reygadas displays a photographic sensibility akin to that of American photographer Edward Weston, who in the 1920s and 1930s understood photography in its ability to reveal an unseen reality. Imbued with the modernist spirit of these decades, Weston resorted to techniques such as arbitrary cropping and microscopic framing so as to disclose unfamiliar geographies. In particular, Reygadas’s framing of bodies is remarkably reminiscent of Weston’s vanguardist work with nudes: by slicing off the body into idiosyncratic shapes, both works reveal a malleable geography of fleshly forms.

The disclosure of new forms through photographic framing is well documented in film theory. Siegfried Kracauer expressed his fondness for extreme close-ups as they ‘estranged’ reality and disclosed ‘unknown shapes’. Calling such a process film’s ‘defamiliarisation’, he argued that tight shots of this kind were particularly akin to establishing a sensuous connection with the viewer since they ‘involve not so much his power of reasoning as his visceral faculties’. (32) Deleuze likewise argued that the medium’s ability to ignore the real scale of people and things accounts for what he terms film’s ‘deterritorialisation’ inasmuch as ‘the screen, as the frame of frames, gives a common standard of measurement to things which do not have one – long shots of countryside and close-ups of the face, an astronomical system and a single drop of water’. (33) In this sense film disrespects the territorial constraints of the real world. A remarkable shot of Silent Light is emblematic of this geographical disrespect in the work of Reygadas. As Marianne embraces Johan, the sunlight hits her eyes and she raises her arm so as to block the light that now hinders her vision. Her hand and forearm, framed in close-up, diagonally take up the entire screen, thus ‘enveloping’ the sun. The resulting image has supernatural overtones as it evokes an eclipse, with the human limb standing for a celestial body of gigantic proportions.

Enveloping the Sun

In like manner, the films of Reygadas not only display microscopic shots of the human flesh, but they also employ long distance shots that transform the natural shape of landscapes. A telling example is the bird-view shot of a confluence of highways in Mexico City in Battle in Heaven.

The gigantic city

This interplay of scales also produces revealing analogies. In Japón the tight shots of Flores’s rugged skin, when juxtaposed with the recurring establishing shots of the also rugged Canyons, lend themselves to a beautiful connection between the topography of her face and that of her environment. Flores’s skin reproduces in its very flesh the physical features of the landscape within which she finds herself. And while these forms could go unnoticed to the human eye alone, the film medium brings micro and macro together to then reveal the remarkable similarity of their material surfaces.

Rough Canyon, Rough Skin

By alternating close-ups of the human flesh with establishing shots of vast landscapes, Reygadas accords to both the same significance: all is geography, all is materiality. Reygadas is a topographical filmmaker, for what we have here are geographies of the earth and geographies of the flesh, and the crossroads at which these geographies overlap.


In her insightful review of Japón, Manohla Dargis concludes by contending that Reygadas’s style would have pleased Bazin: ‘For Bazin, Rossellini’s films were a way of seeing the world’s glory. I think he would have thought the same of Japón.’ (34) Yet from the outset, Reygadas is in discordance with a Bazinian notion of realism at least in two respects: the re-presentation of sex and death onscreen. In more than one occasion, Bazin reiterated what for him constituted the medium’s ‘obscenity’, the violation of the nature of sex and death when these events are recorded and shown onscreen:

Like death, love must be experienced and cannot be represented (it is not called little death for nothing) without violating its nature. This violation is called obscenity. The representation of a real death is also an obscenity, no longer a moral one, as in love, but metaphysical. (35)

It is thus clear that the realism of Reygadas extrapolates Bazin’s ideas on the representational limits of the film medium. This violation of Bazin’s postulates, furthermore, reveals a disregard for the moral imperatives animating the latter’s theories of cinematic realism; imperatives in turn readily identified in the films of Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini and Tarkovsky. One need only remember the marked concern with a world in need of spirituality that informed their works in almost equal measure. Consider, for example, the recurrence of characters driven by faith in their films. (36)

This moral impulse would not apply to the work of Reygadas. For we are talking here of universes, to borrow Deleuze’s famous expression, in ‘perpetual becoming’ and which thus abolish pre-established categories of good and evil. Indeed, we are not asked to sympathise with Esther’s suffering any more than to judge Marcos’ criminal acts or to pity the man’s existential turmoil but to contemplate these events as they come into being devoid of a moral value, to stare into their germinal a-significance, to apprehend them in their sensuous materiality. There is no concern with morality here. And it is this detached depiction of characters and refusal to reinforce moral values that will decisively set Reygadas apart from his cinematic influences and the humanism defended by Bazin; it is here that resides the originality of his work.

Above all, Reygadas’s interest in carnality extrapolates that of his cinematic influences. If we are to use Bazin’s terms, his metaphysics is indeed obscene; it allows for too much emphasis on the fleshly dimension of beings. But it could be argued that Dreyer and Bresson were also concerned with the idea of flesh. However, one must note that they foregrounded it as that which discloses the soul. Take Bazin’s praise of Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950): ‘[n]aturally, Bresson, like Dreyer, is only concerned with the countenance as flesh, which when not involved in playing a role, is a man’s true imprint, the most visible mark of his soul. It is then that the countenance takes on the dignity of a sign’. (37) Bazin thus praises the flesh in their work inasmuch as it reveals the soul and thus acquires ‘the dignity of a sign’. In Reygadas’s films, on the other hand, such ‘dignity’ is nowhere to be seen: the flesh in his work is inescapably flesh.

Raymond Durgnat, taking up Bazin’s insights, once said with regards to Bresson’s Diary of Country Priest: ‘the spiritual has devoured the flesh.’ (38) Here it is the flesh that devours the spiritual.


  1. See, for example: Manohla Dargis, ‘Movie Review: Japón’, Los Angeles Time (April 25 2003), available at http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/reviews/cl-et-manohla25apr25,0,555441.story [Accessed May 2009]; Pedro Butcher ‘Battle in Heaven’, Cinema-Scope (2005), available at http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs23/spo_butcher_battle.htm [Accessed May 2009]; Nick James, ‘Angels and Demons’ Sight and Sound (2005), No. 15 (11), p. 30-33; Jonathan Romney ‘The Sheltering Sky’ Sight and Sound (2005), No. 18 (1), p. 42-44; José Teodoro ‘On Earth as It is in Heaven’, Film Comment (2009), No. 45 (1), p. 48-51.The press also cites, albeit not with the same recurrence, Werner Herzog, Abbas Kiarostami and Terence Malick.
  2. Jason Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 117-8
  3. Raymond Carney, Speaking the Language of Desire: the Films of Carl Dreyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 65
  4. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (London: Quartet Encounters, 1986), p. 109
  5. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), p. 116
  6. Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 14
  7. Ibid, my emphasis.
  8. David Forgacs, Sarah Luton & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (eds), Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real (London: BFI, 2000), p. 150
  9. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), p. 132
  10. André Bazin, The Cinema of Cruelty (New York: Seaver Books, 1982), p. 20
  11. André Bazin, What is Cinema? – Volume 2 (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1971), p. 100
  12. André Bazin, What is Cinema? – Volume 1 (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1967), p. 133
  13. Amédée Ayfre, ‘Neo-Realism and Phenomenology’ in Jim Hillier (ed.) Cahiers du Cinéma Volume 1 – The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 190
  14. Ibid, p. 184
  15. Amédée Ayfre, ‘The Universe of Robert Bresson’ in Ian Cameron (ed) The Films of Robert Bresson (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 11
  16. Shockingly enough, all of Agel and Ayfre’s books have yet to be translated into English and remain unpublished in the UK and the US, a clear sign of the underestimation with which these writers have been approached in Anglo-Saxon Film Studies. For an introduction of their work in English see Dudley Andrew The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (London/Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), chapter 9; Dudley Andrew ‘The Neglected Tradition of Phenomenology in Film Theory’ in Bill Nichols (ed) Movies and Methods Vol.2 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1985).
  17. Michael Bird, ‘Religion in Film’ in Jolyon Mitchell & S. Brent Plate (eds), The Religion and Film Reader (London/New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 393-4
  18. See http://mexico.pueblosamerica.com/i/ayacatzintla/ (accessed December 2008)
  19. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (London: Continuum Impacts, 1989), p. 261
  20. Needless to say, this excess is only excess when compared to what has been for centuries, through overlapping historical discourses, considered what a normal body is or should be. See Brian Turner ‘The Body in Western Society’ in Sarah Coakley (ed) Religion and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  21. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 328
  22. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (London/ New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 422-3
  23. But it is worth noting that divorce rates in Mennonite communities, albeit still very low when compared to other religious groups, are increasing steadily. See Calvin Redekop, Mennonite Society Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), chapter 10.
  24. François Truffaut, ‘Tributes to Dreyer’ in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Jesus (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), p. 310. Bazin would also praise the film on grounds of its supernatural whiteness: ‘The staging of Ordet is, first of all, a metaphysics of white’ (Bazin, Cinema of Cruelty, p. 29)
  25. David Bordwell, The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1981), p. 146
  26. Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, p. 7-8
  27. Lilian R. Furst & Peter N. Skrine, Naturalism (London: Methuen, 1971), p. 2
  28. Émile Zola, ‘Preface to the Second Edition of Thérèse Raquin’ in Thérèse Raquin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 1, my emphasis
  29. In its UK DVD version, scenes in discordance with the Cinematographs Films (Animals) Act 1937 as stipulated by the British Board of Film Classification had to be excised, such as the unsuccessful attempt of a bird being strangled.
  30. Furst, Naturalism, p. 7
  31. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and The Senses (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 163
  32. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 159
  33. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (London: Continuum Impacts, 1986), p. 16
  34. Dargis, ‘Movie Review: Japón’
  35. André Bazin, ‘Death Every Afternoon’ in Ivone Margulies (ed) Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema (Durham/ London: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 30, my emphasis
  36. To cite a few: Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1955); Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and his own The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962); and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986).
  37. Bazin, What is Cinema? – Volume 1, p. 57
  38. Raymond Durgnat, ‘Le Journal D’un Cure de Campagne’ in Ian Cameron (ed) The Films of Robert Bresson (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 48

About The Author

Tiago de Luca is a PhD candidate in World Cinemas at the University of Leeds, UK, working on a thesis provisionally entitled ‘Realism of the Senses: a Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema’ dealing with filmmakers Carlos Reygadas, Tsai Ming-liang and Gus Van Sant, amongst others.

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