The New Cinema of Mexico marches on with Carlos Reygades' Japon, but don't anticipate an audience-chummy film in the vein of Amores Perres and Y Tu Mama Tambien. This extremely demanding, often accomplished, first feature comes from a 32-year-old filmmaker who, as he has explained in interviews, moved from girls and soccer at age 16 to being obsessed by the cinema of Andrey Tarkovsky.
Japon demonstrates Reygades's ode of allegiance to uncompromising, spiritually mesmerized European masters, and more than anyone else, I believe, to Robert Bresson and his grim, minimalist, hell-on-earth brand of Catholicism. (Note Reygades's use of Bresson's favored piece of music, Bach's The Passion of St.Matthew) But there's some Bunuel, too, in the unsentimentalized grotesque peasant cast; and the almost-endless final shot, the camera whirling round and around the characters, reminds me of the concluding moments of Herzog's Aguirre: the Wrath of God.
Here's the tale: an unnamed fading, weather-beaten Man (Alejandro Ferretis, who has the fried, melancholy demeanor of today's Al Pacino) picks his way through rural, non-tourist Mexico in search of a tiny village at the bottom of a canyon where he can rest for a bit, compose himself, and then commit suicide. He goes down, down, down, but after reaching the crude town, he retreats and goes up a bit (directions are very symbolic), climbing to a house on the edge of the canyon where he can rent a bed. He will sleep in the barn of an aging, arthritic woman whose name is Ascen (Magdalena Flores). Ascen: Ascent!
Ascen is one with the angels, a person who is as humble as she is naturally charitable. Slowly, the Man, who is unreligious, seems to discover some crack of hope from the company of this pious old lady, whose meagre home is pasted with pictures of Jesus. Meanwhile, each time he tries to shoot himself, he lacks the will. Lying on his cot (it was the bed of Ascen's husband), he has eerie sexual dreams, and they involve Ascen. Ascen? We see her kiss an image of the Messiah smack on the mouth. Can her Christianity also resuscitate the Man through a sacrificial act of fornication?
Bunuel was an atheist, Bresson a devout believer, but both made cinema in which the do-gooders of the earth are defeated and crushed every time by the rabble. Reygades sets up Ascen as his Bunuel/Bresson sacrificial lamb, and all her kindness can't deter the slovenly, drunken, heathen villagers from literally knocking down her house. But is God watching? The filled-with-dead-bodies last shot of the movie can be read, I think, as the Lord taking his mighty revenge. For a split second, the Heavens reveal themselves: how Bressonian!
And the title, Japon? That is never revealed. It's the ultimate mystery in this most cryptic and yet compelling of Mexican movies.