Transcending the metaphysical impenetrability of “Post Tenebras Lux” and evading the unrestrained grotesqueness of “Battle in Heaven,” illustrious Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas has spawned his most narratively accessible and emotionally open work to date, “Our Time” (“Nuestro tiempo”), an unhurriedly paced three-hour study of marital anguish caused by idealist parameters of love.
Told with his signature epic visuals — wide shots of majestic landscapes captured under stunning natural light — that lend grandeur to the intimate, the film is personal in essence, even if specifics differ from the director’s off-set life. That line between the personal and the autobiographical might blur a bit; “Our Time” was shot on Reygadas’ family ranch in the small Mexican state of Tlaxcala near Mexico City, with him, his wife Natalia López, and their children cast as lead actors.
Before we meet the couple in disarray, a sun-dappled sequence of children and adolescents engaged in rowdy physical play introduces a crucial throughline in “Our Time,” the clash between the world’s intrinsic brute force, in all its manifestations, and man-made codes of conduct, aesthetics, and artificial serenity. Reygadas’ target binary is not gender-based, but one concerned with instincts vs. morality, and our futile efforts to reign over both.
Lauded poet and adept bull rancher Juan (Reygadas) is consumed with jealousy over his wife Esther’s (López) affair with gringo hired hand Phil (Phil Burgers). Their marriage was itself born out of Juan’s infidelity to his previous partner, and that guilt that hangs over him now makes him ridden with insecurity over the possible loss of Esther’s affection.
Further complicating his feelings is a hall-pass in their covenant that’s supposed to allow for extramarital sexual encounters, so long as they are truthfully disclosed. Though it’s likely not a therapeutic assessment of the filmmaker’s own relationship, the proximity to reality of his on-screen choices may lead many to speculate. More probable is that Reygadas used the indirect setting to theorize about his searing inquiries on the limits of infidelity, the urges of the flesh, and poisonous possessiveness. He knows, however, that a pragmatic analysis of these can’t ensure one doesn’t fall prey of them, even when being a progressive thinker versed on non-traditional romantic agreements.
Succumbing to his own pride, Juan is unable to follow his enlightened philosophy on love based on trust and communication, resorting instead to spying behind close doors and surveying his beloved’s cell-phone interactions. After all, in his mind, technology has facilitated her access to men in order to materialize her desires. Monogamous romantic relationships, Reygadas seems to argue through the film, are more grounded on the social constructs we have chosen to abide by than any genetic predisposition to loyalty. And when it comes to sex, the human condition forces us to split the difference between mating and making love, with a resulting act that’s never fully one or the other.
In turn, “Our Time” is plagued with imagery, courtesy of DP Diego García (with additional cinematography by Adrian Durazo), that juxtaposes chaos with our efforts to surpass the primal: Esther listening to tranquil music inside her mighty truck as a storm rages outside, a matador dressed in flamboyant attire to murder an animal savagely, a thunderous marimba coalescing with the melodies of more refined instruments.
Of these, a continuous single take of an airplane breaking through the clouds as it descends on the Mexican capital, and scored with Esther’s sincere confessions, is the film’s pièce de résistance, the stuff of masters.
Less obvious than a surface reading would tell, bulls here act as symbols of untamed fury more than of masculinity, a primitive force of destruction that runs through us all. The imposing beasts, at once gorgeous and terrifying, are just its more unabashed incarnation. With this in mind, Juan wields poetry as a civilized weapon to overcome his tendency for barbarity, which is fueled by feelings he can rationalize, but not entirely suppress.
In the form of voice-over narration by Reyagadas’ young daughter, describing Juan’s inner state or correspondence between the three conflicted lovers, dialogue features more prominently than in any of the visionary’s previous cinematic knock-outs. Reyagadas has his characters verbalize their turmoil, because if written language is a uniquely human tool, then it must, we hope, help separate us from creatures acting solely on intuitive drives.
Whether covered in despondent tears or posturing sexual and intellectual superiority around other men, Carlos Reygadas the actor portrays a desperate and frightened man with effectively measured vulnerability. Brilliant co-star López is given the most explosive part, as the judged spouse giving in to pleasure — corporeal and affective — in order to assert her own existence outside their shared existence. It’s enthralling acting tête-à-tête. Even if casting loved ones was motivated by practical convenience, the artist’s decision was fruitful.
One of the year’s most thought-provoking and spellbinding releases, “Our Time” is calibrated for patience and observation with ideas as concrete as such an ambiguous storyteller like Reygadas can offer. Painfully honest in its questioning of timeless and universal musings, the fifth feature by the often-controversial and always-intriguing auteur feels profound in intention and poetically grand in scope. Reygadas, for the first time, appears less slightly cerebral and more approachably terrestrial.
“Love is resilient, and above all imperfect,” says Juan in one of many written statement to Phil. This, of course, is a half-truth. Like most things under the sun, love is inherently flawed, but its resilience is dependent only how much the involved parts are willing to withstand. In the battle between the uncontrollable and our trained appetite for stability, the only logical conclusion is that, perhaps, what we are so keen on making eternal isn’t meant to be so. Our time together might be finite.