For the bored and brutalized wife of a Border Patrol officer, the name Cincinnati can ring with the magic of Xanadu. Like most of the characters in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, young Lou Ann (January Jones) dreams of a better place; and like most of the women in this contemporary western, she defines that “better” on the basis of hard experience. Cincinnati may not be great, but it’s all lights and whoopee compared with her present home in Cibolo County, Texas, in a trailer next to the railroad tracks, in a town too minute to have its own mall.
Other characters in the movie, men mostly, see the mirage of happiness up ahead. People such as Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo) stream north across the border, imagining a brighter life in the United States. Pete (Tommy Lee Jones), Melquiades’s cattle-ranch foreman and friend, travels south instead, to carry out a duty and exact revenge but also, as you gradually understand, to search for a Mexican Eden.
Only Lou Ann’s skull-faced husband, Mike (Barry Pepper), seems to lack such dreams of a better place, having found as much of an ideal as he needs within the pages of Hustler. A dangerous ideal: In one of screen history’s most elaborate demonstrations of the evils of whacking off, Mike is literally caught with his pants down, right out in the Texas sunshine, and so in his embarrassment and panic shoots to death the blameless Melquiades. For this crime against one of the immigrants he has so enthusiastically hounded–and for this sin against his wife–Mike undergoes a long and saddle-sore penance. He becomes, against his will, a traveling companion to Pete and the increasingly unattractive Melquiades, who must be given the sweet and decent burial he deserves, back home.
As this plot unfolds, you will notice how the emotional atmosphere of the border, its terrain, even its geographic location seem to change, depending on which movie The Three Burials wants to be at the moment. You watch, by turns, a protest film directed against several species of injustice; a documentary about the penury of small-town life in the Southwest; a vigilante thriller starring a guy who looks like Warren Oates overgrown with moss; a travelogue featuring scenic mountains and desert; a quest film with elements grotesque and macabre; a melancholy love story of men chasing fantasy women, and of real women wearily distancing themselves from men. The plan for putting all this together–a necessarily tricky scheme, involving ostentatiously scrambled chronology and coy narrative gaps–came from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), whose work very plausibly won a prize last year at Cannes. The job of realizing this script, bringing out both its cleverness and its heart, fell to Tommy Lee Jones, who chose a challenge for his first feature directing job and handled it much as he acts, with brisk authority.
Though not as brisk as, say, Clint Eastwood. Compared with Eastwood, who wants to look as if he just stepped up and said the line, Jones the actor is practically a star of the Yiddish theater, always playing to the audience with his odd-paced delivery and chest-thrusting gait. In The Three Burials, Jones the director has imposed no strong discipline on this style. He lets himself pause soulfully in the stirrup while dismounting a horse, or aggressively rush his speech in a confrontation, or pat Lou Ann’s head in a gesture that’s both kind and indelibly creepy (considering that she’s bound and gagged). What the director grants to himself, though, he also gives the rest of the cast, to the point of letting Barry Pepper become the pivotal figure of the movie.
In contrast to Cedillo, who is consistently warm and ingenuous as Melquiades, or January Jones, who pretty much broods and fumes her way through the film, Pepper gets to change, and in a big way. His border cop may start as a perfect villain–the scowl of a lean Roman centurion, the posture of an American white man spoiling for a fight–but Pepper is soon running through defiance, fear, confusion, physical pain and numb resignation to conclude with remorse, on a scale large enough to require spit and snot with the tears. He holds the camera at the final shot; he speaks the film’s last words. The director has done him justice.
And that, even more than the search for fabled Cincinnati, is what The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about: doing justice. A common theme for a western. You rarely see it carried out so fully, though–and almost never on behalf of a title character who so little expected it.
Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven takes place in a Mexico City of religious processions and flag-raising ceremonies, proliferating highways and improvised market stalls, where the insolent rich literally piss on their servants and the poor ride the subway wearing Aztec Wrestler masks. In explaining why he incorporated such motifs, Reygadas has cited Alfred Hitchcock, who advised that a film set in Holland had better show tulips and windmills. Respect must be paid to convention–all the more so in a film lovingly shot on location, cast with nonprofessional actors who engage in real sex.
The sex bit, even more than the outrageousness of the plot, has raised some clamor against Battle in Heaven. Heavy-breasted, myopic, middle-aged Marcos Hernández–a chauffeur in real life–plays the role of a military chauffeur named Marcos, one of whose tasks is to drive around his general’s wealthy and stylish daughter Ana (played by Anapola Mushkadiz, who in real life is wealthy and stylish). To make sure he’s got your attention, Reygadas begins Battle in Heaven with Ana naked on her knees before an equally bare and sweating Marcos. Two perfect tears form in Ana’s still-juvenile eyes, as she performs a nonsimulated act in close-up. Marcos, meanwhile, stares ahead with the strained, wooden expression he will wear for most of the movie. You can, of course, watch this scene as a tribute to Warhol’s Blow Job, following an association that Reygadas all but forces on you. Or you can think about tulips and windmills. Either way, Reygadas is asserting the movieness of the moment and aggressively breaking through it, as he will also do later in a scene of lovemaking between Marcos and his rotund, impassive wife (Bertha Ruiz, who in life as in the movie sells jellies in a subway station).
Reygadas’s story, like his sex scenes, merges the materialistic with the fanciful. Throughout the movie, Marcos and his wife bear the guilt of having kidnapped an infant, who died before they could collect the ransom. Since Reygadas refrains from showing either the abduction or the death, and since kidnappers are known to strike frequently in Mexico, there’s nothing particularly lurid about this setup. But Reygadas further posits that Ana, like the protagonist of Belle de Jour, works in a brothel; that Marcos has the privilege of knowing this secret, and impulsively shares his own secret with her; and that this confidence somehow moves Ana to grant his dream and let him enter her bed. We are now deep into the territory of the unlikely–which Reygadas then denies by venturing on long, nonnarrative forays through the city.
Battle in Heaven takes its dollop of Hitchcock, some Warhol and a lot of Buñuel and mixes them with a large dose of Bresson, posing awkward “models” in tableaux of crime, repentance and maybe redemption. Reygadas steals from the best; but what he steals, he changes into his own. I have warned you about everything–well, almost everything–that you might find exploitative or false. But once Reygadas draws you in to the visionary intensity of Battle in Heaven, no warning can shield you.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, in the isthmus city of Juchitán, lives a vibrant community of Zapotec Indians whose forceful, colorful women have won the admiration of visitors going back to Frida Kahlo and Sergei Eisenstein. Among the more recent of these outsiders was British journalist Jocasta Shakespeare, who in 1994 wrote an article for Elle that characterized Juchitán as a matriarchal city bossed by “huge and sensual women,” hard-drinking, money-loving and “red-hot.”
By the time this article was published, to general outrage in the town, American documentarians Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne had begun a film about Juchitán and its women. In the face of the Zapotecas’ anger, this project turned into a kind of correction to the Elle story. And yet Gosling had been attracted to Juchitán precisely because of its reputation as a matriarchy, where women are known to dominate the cash economy and homosexuality is said to be accepted as a normal part of life. Debunking what she had come to celebrate, celebrating what she’d debunked, Gosling eventually pulled together Blossoms of Fire, after a ten-year struggle. Following many festival screenings, the picture now goes into release through New Yorker Films.
Given the film’s contradictions, perhaps the most impressive thing about Blossoms of Fire is the smoothness with which it unfolds. Gosling is, among much else, a veteran film editor, whose magical touch with transitions is sorely needed, as she moves from economic issues to party politics to gay and lesbian themes to the struggle to preserve the Zapotec language. Her principal aids in this editing are the local songs and the figures of the women themselves, with their brilliantly colored skirts dancing about them. When Gosling interrupts to provide a singsong narration, her voice drains the life out of the scene; but there’s so much vitality to be found wherever she turns the camera that Blossoms of Fire always recovers.
As for the reputation that drew Gosling to Juchitán: Matriarchy, in this case, means that women can work twelve hours in the market and then clean house. Acceptance of sexual difference means that parents didn’t actually carry out the beatings that their lesbian and gay children had feared. I say you make your own utopia.
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Right after World War II, Carol Reed directed a trio of exceptional thrillers: a dark journey through Belfast with a doomed IRA gunman (Odd Man Out); a tricky mystery about postwar profiteering in Vienna (The Third Man); and the lightest of the three, The Fallen Idol, which is set in London but also on foreign soil, since its main location is an embassy. Written by Graham Greene, based on his story “The Basement Room,” The Fallen Idol views adult miseries and betrayals through the eyes of a child and English habits through the eyes of an alien–the same eyes, belonging to the ambassador’s son (Bobby Henrey), whose only friends are a pet snake and the embassy’s butler (Ralph Richardson, in perhaps his finest screen performance). Rialto Pictures has struck a fresh print of The Fallen Idol and is putting it into theaters, starting with a run at New York’s Film Forum (through February 23). You won’t find anything else half as entertaining.