Somewhere within Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ latest film, there is an effective, moving and delicately depicted exploration of a disintegrating marriage and the deeply flawed man trying to hold it all together. It's just a shame that it is bogged down by so much self-indulgent unnecessary fluff that many may end up losing patience with it long before it finally ends. And when you decide to make the film 3 hours in length, you really have to work hard to justify that running time. This is the stumbling block that Reygadas never quite manages to hurdle.
The events of the film take place for the most part on Juan’s (Reygadas) ranch, where he and his wife Esther raise fighting bulls (cue some very heavy handed symbolic shots of bulls clashing with each other [get it? Like husband and wife?]). And the cracks in their marriage soon begin to show, with the emotional distance between Juan and Esther made clear when Esther leaves on a work trip to Mexico City with their close friend Phil (Phil Burgers), Juan growing suspicious that ulterior motives are at play.
Through films like Japón, Battle in Heaven, and the highly acclaimed Silent Light, Reygadas established himself as one of the most experimental arthouse filmmakers of the 21st century, with Tarkovsky often cited as Reygadas’ major influence. With this considerable wealth of talent that Reygadas clearly possesses, it is therefore all the more surprising to discover just how sluggish and flawed Our Time feels, a film that reeks of an auteur going off the rails, someone who is perhaps a little too secure in the knowledge of their own storytelling (and acting) abilities.
Speaking of acting, Reygadas’ decision to cast himself and his real-life wife Natalia López as the embattled couple at the center of the story was an awfully risky move in itself, and it really does not pay off. What was clearly intended as a profoundly introspective and perhaps even somewhat self-aware move instead comes off as infuriatingly self-indulgent and just downright unnecessary, the film seemingly becoming a form of therapy for Reygadas that we, the audience, are increasingly excluded from.
And we haven’t even touched upon any of the lengthy and vastly uninteresting sequences that so stunt the film’s emotional impact, including a horribly elongated scene involving a screaming heavy-metal singer, cocaine, oral sex, and a peeping tom. You get the picture.
The reason that such issues are so frustrating is that there are a number of sections that I did find to be effectively intriguing and rather emotional, with excellent cinematography, some interesting dialogue exchanges, and a number of gorgeous nature doc-esque shots. One instance comes when Esther leaves for Mexico City with Phil, the camera following the pick-up truck from a fixed position as they drive out of the ranch, the shot ending on a sustained image of the beckoning sunrise, a warm glow that lights up the foregrounded row of trees. With this shot, Reygadas’ conveys more emotional depth than with any of the goofy dialogue or irritating side-characters that mar much of the rest of the mammoth running time.
I hate to be that person who jumps to comparing Our Time with fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s most recent feature Roma, but the more you consider the flaws of Reygadas’ film, the more appropriate this comparison becomes. Because where Our Time stumbles in following up on its establishment of a quietly observed study of a fractured marriage, Roma soars, delivering a wholly new take on the long-told story by focusing on the family’s maid Cleo, through which we see the gradual rifts forming between the family. A semi-autobiographical story, Cuarón’s film is a perfect example of how to build a world around one character, cleverly using Cleo as a proxy for the audience to witness the build-up of tension within the family.
And when we turn back to Reygadas’ film, it is all the more clear what comparatively little invention he brings to this story, told so many times from so many different perspectives. Reygadas does flirt with some interesting ideas throughout, including another stand-out sequence set in a performance hall where the camera moves outside the venue into the hustle and bustle of Mexico City before shifting back into the hall, but ultimately, this is an increasingly frustrating watch, one that pushes the audience’s patience further and further towards breaking point.
Reygadas is clearly a very confident filmmaker. But sometimes self-confidence can be the catalyst of one’s downfall. Casting you and your wife in the lead roles is one thing, but stretching the film to a 3 hour runtime and padding it out with a number of increasingly frustrating sequences that seem to add little to the proceedings? It’s almost too much to handle. Perhaps a little more restraint is needed for Reygadas’ next project, whatever that may be.