In the most resonant sequence in Carlos Reygadas’ “Our Time,” the camera soars over a mist-shrouded landscape while a woman, Esther (Natalia López), reads aloud from a letter she’s written to her husband, Juan (played by Reygadas). She is processing the conflicted feelings that have emerged in the wake of her affair with another man, one that was sanctioned, or so she thought, by the terms of their open marriage. As “Dear Juan” letters go, this one ends on an optimistic note (“You are the love of my life, and I’ve never doubted that for a second”), but the steady descent of the camera, slowly but surely falling back to earth, tells a sadder, less reassuring story.
The scene is a testament to the glorious eye of Reygadas, a Mexican director whose visually stunning, spiritually inquiring films (“Japón,” “Silent Light”) often show men and women struggling to connect — to each other, to the natural world, to a higher power or purpose. But it is also one of the few instances in which we hear directly from Esther, who spends the rest of this nearly three-hour drama of marital anguish behind an unreadable, sometimes scowling mask, walling off her emotions and thwarting Juan’s attempts to connect.
The sublimity of Esther’s airborne monologue thus stands in marked contrast to the movie around it, which remains stubbornly earthbound. This is true in more than one sense: Juan and Esther are ranch owners, and their lives are steeped in mud and sweat, in the physical toil of training, riding and caring for their horses and bulls, who are on hand to provide free-floating metaphors for humanity’s bestial nature. Majestic landscapes and manual labor are hardly new subjects for Reygadas, who has a gift for finding transcendence — and trippiness, as in his brilliant, mystifying “Post Tenebras Lux” — in the sounds, images and rhythms of the rural quotidian.
There are moments of tenderness and beauty here, including an idyllic prologue set at a nearby swimming hole where children splash, play, hide and seek, while Juan’s teenage son (Yago Martínez) and a girlfriend make love in a rocky hideaway. But for much of “Our Time,” shot in widescreen by the gifted cinematographer Diego García (“Neon Bull,” “Cemetery of Splendour”), Reygadas seems to have locked himself into an unusually narrow position. Juan and Esther may have a fascinatingly novel and multifaceted marriage, but the picture that emerges, courtesy of Juan’s perspective, is almost punishingly one-sided.
Their problems have clearly been brewing for a while, but it isn’t until Esther gets back from an ostensible work trip to Mexico City with an American horse trainer, Phil (Phil Burgers), that Juan becomes suspicious. He badgers Esther relentlessly, first for not telling him about her dalliance with Phil, and then for not striking the proper tone or appreciating how sensitively he’s broaching the subject. He seems to have no idea of how thoroughly pigheaded he’s being, even when he starts manipulating Esther into dalliances with other men so he can spy her.
Whether Reygadas realizes this himself is a trickier and more fascinating question, especially when you consider that he and his co-star, López, are married in real life. The ranch is their actual ranch; the actors playing their children are their actual children. Reygadas, who tends to work with non-professional actors, has collaborated with family members before, behind and in front of the camera. (López served as film editor on two of his earlier films.) But despite the unusual intimacy of this particular arrangement and a few telling parallels — Juan is not only a cowboy but a world-renowned poet — Reygadas has shrugged off suggestions that “Our Time” is an autobiographical or even especially personal work.
That may be a familiar sign of auteurial coyness, a director’s understandable reluctance to impose a distracting meta-narrative on his work, or to have us mistake his art for therapy. Even still, it would be churlish to deny the personal dimension of “Our Time.” Regardless of whether this carefully staged and scripted movie reflects Reygadas and López’s marriage, its abundance of lived-in details on the margins — from the low-lighted interiors and cluttered surfaces of their home to the daily routines of their work and family life — speak to an ever-present reality lurking beyond the confines of the frame. Jacques Rivette’s famous maxim that every film is a documentary of its own making comes to mind.
Without that personal dimension, “Our Time” would be of far less interest, especially when set beside the aesthetic glories and formal innovations that have elevated Reygadas’ past work. This isn’t the first time he’s explored infidelity and estrangement, as he did in both “Post Tenebras Lux” and the masterful “Silent Light,” but given his attentiveness to subtle details and textures, it’s surprising how little he extracts from this story of a marriage that doesn’t look terribly liberated. Granting Esther the same psychological weight he grants Juan would have helped, surely. That Reygadas refuses to do so might be interpreted as a boorish lack of curiosity — or, more charitably, as an honest self-indictment, a refusal to speak for a character he doesn’t know or understand.
Still, there are promising moments when “Our Time” tries to see past Esther’s opacity, as when she attends a concert and loses herself in the beauty of a timpani solo. Most striking of all is a scene in which she drives home through the rain, lost in an erotic reverie, and the camera moves in for a surprising closeup of the engine of her truck while Genesis’ “The Carpet Crawlers” floods the soundtrack. “We’ve got to get in to get out” goes that song’s stirring refrain, an oddly perfect choice for a story in which intimacy becomes alienation, and liberation starts to look more like entrapment.
In Spanish and English with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts June 28, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles