The protagonist of Carlos Reygadas's Japón quietly embodies the punchline to the old joke Woody Allen quotes--as a metaphor for life--in Annie Hall: "Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort and one of them says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know, and such small portions.'" Reygadas's long-faced hero treks into the Mexican highlands to end his life, but what he finds--natural beauty and guileless vulnerability--disarms him. The words "scintillating" and "action-packed" do not describe Japón, but nor do "pre-packaged" and "thoughtless."
The Man, played by Alejandro Ferretis, settles in a wilding canyon, where an elederly Indian widow named Ascen (short for Ascension) opens her humble home and attends him. Over time, the Man's senses and desires reawaken, culminating in an indecent proposal that would make Robert Redford blush. The minimalist plot also includes a surprisingly languid threat--orchestrated by Ascen's nephew and carried out by a cheery band of cronies--to the old woman's homestead.
The slow rhythm of the film--mirroring the pace of life outside of the Man's urban origins--betrays first-timer Reygadas's slavish adherence to his cinematic hero Andrei Tarkovsky. As such, most will view Japón as one long bathroom break of a movie. Japón is certainly indulgent, and Reygadas doesn't always succeed in taking us on his trip. Some choices are ill-advised, like a throwaway self-reference to "the film." Others--like a pointed, seemingly endless parade of kids from left to right of frame, punctuated by one old couple walking from right to left of frame--risk alienating as much as informing.
But Reygadas peppers the film with mild absurdities and laconic observations (like a rustic's comment that "The devil loads weapons and idiots shoot them"), layers the film with both an expressive natural soundscape and full-bodied music, and gently explores two different human views: to dispose of what has become useless or to fix it.