It's 130 minutes long. It's centered in a remote religious community in Mexico. It's spoken in an obscure German dialect, Plautdietsch. And none of the actors in it are professional. I have to say, this one sat on the shelf for a little while before we felt we could gather enough caffeinated beverages to get through it, and probably only the fact that it was directed by the man who did the unforgettable Battle in Heaven convinced us to watch it - even though, in that case, the word "unforgettable" may not necessarily be an entirely good thing... While not having the same explicitly-sexual content, this one falls into a similar category, in that it's anti-cinema in just about every way, starring people who are the opposite of conventional film-stars. Johan (Wall) is at the center of a love-triangle, between his wife and mother of their children, Esther (Toews) and Marianne (Pankratz) - what's unusual is that, in a fitting slab of religious-inspired honesty, everyone knows exactly what is going on. Not that this makes things any easier, of course: Johan loves both women, and is torn between what his duty and faith tell him to do, and what his heart wants him to do.
Often, you get a feeling the camera was just left on, while things happened in front of it, taking however long they wanted to. This is most obvious in the first embrace between Johan and Marianne, which goes on and on and on. And on, to the point it becomes uncomfortably intrusive, even though it's entirely PG-rated in content. Much of the film could certainly be described as "art-wank" of the highest order, and you fill find your attention spanned being severely-taxed, during the long chunks during which nothing of significance happenes, with regard to driving the plot. But Reygadas doesn't seem bothered with that, most notably at the end which has one of the least-plausible plot-twists I've seen. Those with a better knowledge of classic cinema than I, say the scene, and the film in general, is a nod to Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1955 Ordet. However, to me, even in a film with an obviously religious grounding, it's a bit of a stretch, implying a God rather more indecisive than the one in which Johan clearly believes.
The cinematography is marvellous, however, right from the opening scene of an accelerated sunrise - about the only thing in the entire movie which is accelerated - and it has the feel of Grant Wood's classic American Gothic painting in cinematic form. This helps tide the film over the most...let's say, "languid" passages. It's harder to criticize the performances, since it's hard to say how much actual acting is going on: there isn't a great deal of emotional range on view, yet you get the sense this stoicism is entirely appropriate. Overall, it's the kind of film which is not for everyone, and the words "boring" and "pointless" could easily be applied to it. However, it's a richer cinema which has room for both this and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. As with Battle, while "like" is probably too strong a word for my reaction to the film, "respect" is certainly not.
[The DVD was released by Palisades Tartan on September 8th. It's in widescreen, with bonus features including an interview with Cornelio Wall, deleted scenes and a making-of documentary. For more information, please see the Palisades Tartan website.]