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October 2010

Raging Sun, Raging Sky

cast: Guillermo Villegas, Jorge Becerra, Javier Oliv�n, and Giovanna Zacar�as

director: Juli�n Hern�ndez

191 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Raging Sun, Raging Sky

Let us begin by taking stock: throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Kenneth Anger forged a reputation for being one of the most influential and transgressive filmmakers ever to walk the Earth. In short films like Scorpio Rising (1964), Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1972), Anger combined homoerotic and occult imagery with instrumental and popular music to create a heady blend of psychotropic weirdness whose influence continues to be felt today in music videos such as the one for Hercules and Love Affair's track You Belong (2008).

Let us also consider the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky. From the 1950s onwards, this former mime artist's works combined elements from his background in the French surrealist movement with occult imagery and spiritual themes to produce immortal works of cinema such as El Topo (1970), and The Holy Mountain (1974). These are works of such towering weirdness that it is doubtful that their like will ever be seen again. Cinema is now too cynical, too jaded to be shocked by such tricks and shock tactics.

We should also think about works from the first generation of art house cinema, such as Alain Resnais' Last Year In Marienbad (1961), and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). Works which assaulted the long-held assumption that film was an essentially narrative medium. Works that sought to provoke the audience by deconstructing their expectations of narrative fulfilment and providing them instead with a lyrical banquet of images and moods which, despite lacking much of a story, continue to be celebrated to this day.

Before moving on, we should also look at the current crop of filmmakers and the art that they produce. For example, reflect upon Jos� Luis Guer�n's In The City Of Sylvia (2007), an indescribably beautiful film in which a man wanders around the city of Strasbourg for 84 minutes under the misguided belief that he had met a particular girl before. Think also of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits Of Control (2009), in which a mysterious man in a very sharp suit wanders around a number of beautiful Spanish locales meeting with strange characters before apparently murdering Bill Murray and then returning to a normal life. Or how about Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin (2008), a 92-minute film composed of nothing but close-ups of women watching a film?

All of these films and all of these directors are in the business of producing art. While there are some dissenting voices and some jeering from the peanut gallery, the critical response to such films is pretty much unanimous: these are great works of cinema. These are works that will be remembered when Avatar (2009) is relegated to Netto's DVD bargain bin. These are the films that provide what cinema is all about: beauty, form, intelligence, inspiration, provocation, and light.

This is not an unconventional understanding of the nature of cinema. And yet films by the Mexican director Juli�n Hern�ndez continue to divide opinion. Continue to meet mixed reactions. Continue to garner reviews parsed in the noncommittal terms of the cowardly fence-sitter. Why is this? Is it perhaps because Hern�ndez makes films that are labelled as being of GLBT interest? Is there a queer ghetto in art house cinema? Perhaps...

Hern�ndez's latest film Raging Sun, Raging Sky (aka: Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo) tells the story of two young men: Ryo (Guillermo Villegas), and Kieri (Jorge Becerra). These two men are in love despite having never met. They are destined to be together and yet circumstance has always managed to keep them apart. When Ryo encounters a spirit (Giovanna Zacar�as), he is told that there is a man out there who is destined to be with him. A man made for him. A man who, by his act of love, will redeem him - and Ryo sets out to find this man but without much initial luck.

Kieri works in a call centre. Despite clearly being a romantic soul, he is bored and frustrated and so passes his time watching porn, having phone sex and engaging in all kinds of sordid encounters down at the local porn cinema. In other words, he is a man in need of redemption and in search of salvation. He is bored, he is lonely, and he is in love even if he does not know it yet. As the film progresses, the lives of the two men repeatedly intersect but circumstances always manage to intercede in such a way as to prevent the pair coming together. After a while, these near misses become so flagrant that they come to appear stage-managed.

At this point, Hern�ndez introduces Tari (Javier Oliv�n) a swarthy denizen of the porn cinema whose desire to be with one of the couple and thereby thwart the will of the spirit grants him a positively mephitic air. Indeed, had Raging Sun, Raging Sky been a traditional drama then Tari would have been little more than a stand-in for Wickham from Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice (1813). However, because Hern�ndez frames the film as a fantastical narrative, we are forced to see Tari not as 'the wrong man' or simply 'another man' but as an evil influence that must be defeated in order for true love to triumph.

The film's final act sees Hern�ndez grappling with this very idea when he transfers the action from a nameless Mexican cityscape to the mythological desert. Here, Tari and Ryo fight for the affections of Kieri in an epic battle hewn straight from the rock-face of myth. However, as the confrontation rages, it also starts to feel increasingly contrived and absurd. Is Tari really evil simply for wanting to be with Kiero? Why should Ryo be the only one who could possibly love Kieri? Why should Kieri's love and affection for Tari be sinister?

The answer is that once one begins to see one's life in terms of a particular narrative, any disruption to that narrative comes to be seen as an unwanted intrusion. Because Ryo has set his sights on true love and because Ryo is the film's viewpoint character, we see Tari as sinister. But, in truth, he is anything but sinister. He is just another human being searching for love. As Raging Sun, Raging Sky's final image lingers in the frame all is made clear... true love is where you find it and what you make of it. Our destinies are not written in the stars but in the days of our lives. The days we live and the days we make.

At over three hours in length and boasting only a few isolated and frequently opaque lines of dialogue, Raging Sun, Raging Sky is not the most accessible of films. Its narrative is slight, its characters are little more than shadows and its themes veer uncomfortably from the sentimental to the mystical to the outright sleazy and back again. It is not an easy or forgiving film. However, despite - and perhaps even because of - this, Hern�ndez's latest film is a work of almost indescribable beauty. This is, without question, a substantial and serious work of art in the grandest traditions of art house cinema.

Shot almost entirely in black and white, every shot of Raging Sun, Raging Sky is composed with painstaking attention to detail: actors hold themselves in particular ways so as to catch deep shadows and carefully filtered beams of light. Furniture is arrayed about the place so as to cast elegant shadows. Crowd scenes become battlefields. Rundown cinemas become wastelands. Sex scenes become moments of transcendental exaltation. Again and again, Hern�ndez's film assaults you with its terrifying beauty and technical brilliance but, as Hern�ndez grinds through his story of love and beauty, one is also assailed by doubts.

The point of division over Raging Sun, Raging Sky is not over whether or not you can put up with a film with this much male nudity in it. Nor is it over whether or not you can deal with a film that is over three hours long and contains only a handful of lines of dialogue. These are not issues. Not for serious lovers of cinema. The point of division is over whether or not Raging Sun, Raging Sky is ambitious enough in the themes it tackles and the questions it asks.

Indeed, although there are no grounds whatsoever for questioning either Hern�ndez's eye for composition or his technical skill as a director, one cannot help but be struck by the narrowness of his themes: this is the 21st century. Man has been on this planet and producing art work for hundreds of thousands of years. Film makers have been examining the human condition from thousands of angles for over a hundred years now. Do we really need another film about a couple falling in love?

Do we really need another film dealing with the possibility of salvation and the potential toxicity of believing in myths of moral redemption? Are there not more pressing questions to be asked? Are there not new depths to be plumbed? Hern�ndez is undeniably a serious artist with a serious amount of talent but, based upon Raging Sun, Raging Sky, he is not a particularly profound thinker.

The review copy of the DVD received contained no extras. For a film as inaccessible as this one, that strikes me as a grave tactical misjudgement.

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