“I make vases,” Carlos Reygadas declared to the brief Q&A following (what I believe to be) the U.S. premiere of his new film, Our Time, at AFI Fest. “They’re for people to through through, to sit in and consider, and everyone will have a different experience.” That certainly proved true during the course of the new few minutes, as audience members offered theories, approaches, and readings of the nearly-three-hour film. Reygadas was warm and receptive, but disagreed with nearly every reading. He was not dismissive of them, save for the most common – the insistence that because the film stars he and his wife as a married couple exploring the emotional terrain of an open marriage, it must be a direct portrait of their marriage.
Reygadas is at the forefront of modern cinema, his films steeped in artistic, geographic, and spiritual histories of Mexico. They illustrate how inner knowledge emerges as pain. They explore how knowing yourself, your nature and desires, practically guarantees strife in finding a way to live with that awareness. Silent Light (2007) is about a man who feels his first marriage was a mistake and wants to be with a new woman; he wonders if this second woman might in fact be God’s plan for him, desperate to fit his carnal desires into his strict religious life. Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has its cast of addicts, violent men, and pleasure seekers, none of whom find catharsis or relief through this awareness.
Unlike most international art-house filmmakers, Reygadas does not use the same cast over and over, preferring instead to work with amateurs or non-actors. He’s carved perhaps his biggest practical challenge to date in pitting himself and his wife (Natalia López) together; it’s one thing to draw out something you see in another, quite another to find something inside yourself. What he finds is a warmth I would not have expected from the filmmaker who climaxed his last film with a man ripping his own head off.
Esther (López) stills loves Juan (Reygadas) very much when she starts up with one of his ranch hands, Phil (Phil Burgers); she needs him, even. She just needs quite a bit more, too. He has the ranch, and the cattle, and the work, all of which he loves, so much so that he hasn’t tended to the artistic career that once defined them both. She, trapped out in all that dust, needs an outlet, and someone to appreciate it with. He goes along with it for a time, so long as there are strict boundaries, chief among them that she tell him what she’s doing. She breaks that almost immediately, and he takes this as license to spy on her. More than keeping track of her, this quickly takes the form of watching her make love to other men, with no direct aims of interfering or preventing it. He may even kind of like it.
This is not precisely new space for Reygadas. Post Tenebras Lux had a quite memorable scene in which that married couple (Juan and Natalia, inviting its own set of conclusions) visits some kind of sex bathhouse in which the husband encourages his wife to have sex with multiple men in front of him. I don’t mean to insist on an autobiographical reading, but all artists to some extent use their medium to explore desires and fears that they have not and would not act on. That he should draw this particular one out to a feature is not so unusual.
Reygadas proves a very charismatic lead, easily stepping into the role of boss (wrangling seasonal ranch hands is perhaps not so different from guiding a film crew for a short while), and more valuably father. The scenes between him and his children (played by Reygadas and López’s real children) are sweet and very sincere; their oldest is nearing college age, and the mix of pride and sadness Reygadas plays at seeing this next step on the horizon is quite touching. He falters a bit in the more emotionally-demanding scenes, though the structure of the film works with that weakness. Much of it is aware of the way we increasingly force confrontation into impersonal spaces like emails and text messages, but have difficulty finding the same clarity in person.
The more dramatic work is where López really takes the reigns anyway. Her own mix plays to Esther’s stubbornness, that she’s constantly holding something back from Juan and from her lovers in an effort to remain in control, all the while needing so much else to fill some void. Her pursed lips and taught posture are used as distractions from her eyes, which are constantly wandering in uncertainty, searching for a way out of true confrontation with herself and her lovers.
López’s hand is missed in the editing room, a space she filled masterfully on Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux. At 173 minutes, Our Time is the longest Reygadas film by a decent stretch, and it spends too much of that time reiterating scenes and imagery, especially in drawing comparisons between wrestling animals and the human conflict (never mind some of the more upsetting animal violence, as a fair warning). The scene transitions are not as piercing; it’s a looser film, and not quite as penetrating for it. Gone, too, is cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who’s answered independent Hollywood’s call with last year’s The Florida Project and this year’s Tyrel, but if you’re going to find a new director of photography, Diego García – who shot Cemetery of Splendor – is certainly a good backup choice. Like all other Reygadas films, Our Time is beautiful, and his newfound focus on life’s pleasures rather than strictly its agonies makes for a unique texture. The film begins with kids playing by the ocean, and it well establishes the new space Reygadas is interested in exploring; that for all the adults inflict on one another, their children are capable of carving a full, happy space all their own.