In the modern age of widely inclusive discourse and immediately-documented reaction, perhaps nothing in film culture is as bitterly received by film fans as the over-enunciation and repetitiveness of on-the-spot legacy building. The Revenant, the latest film to result from the creative partnership of Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, serves as the perfect illustration of this. Before the film’s wide release, it was difficult to measure which publicized narrative was the most worn and grating: the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-seeking commitment to his role, Iñárritu’s readily-shared and over-licensed insistence regarding his artistic pursuit of capital-T Truth, or the continued celebration Lubezki’s renowned filming techniques, specifically his skilled long-takes and his obsessive pursuit of natural light. Partially because the three contributors are currently campaigning for their first, second, and third Oscar wins, respectively, and partially due to the trade-publication emphasis on each of their segmented, obsessive efforts worked to a rhythm of hollow beats, the over-sharing of these elements has begun to feel like campaign season artificiality and novel buzz-stories simplified for passive film fans. But that these narratives have been made to register as generic in our mind does not, by itself, disqualify the work and earned accomplishment from which they have been built. Familiarity, as much as anything else, can lead to a work’s being undervalued.
This corrective note is, perhaps, most vital in consideration of the filmography of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose knack for building separate stories out of the presence of light, the absence of light, and its symbolic and biological significance is the stuff of high art.
Consider 2006’s Children of Men, in which Lubezki and Director Alfonso Cuaron navigated a world that seemed to choke on its own thick scarcity of light to build a story about a small hope transported through a landscape of hopelessness. In one of the most striking film images of the 21st century, a thin light fixture points to Kee’s pregnant body, the singular source of hope of the film and its dying civilization, allowing actress Clare-Hope Ashitey to stand out as the most luminous component of a shadow thick frame.
Lubezki’s experimental light ballet continued in more optimistic terms in 2011 with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, a film that places an otherwise mundane middle class family drama between a creation sequence and an assumed apocalyptic event and threads through and beyond it all with a divinely burning infinity. As much as Malick’s story is concerned with the central family, Lubezki’s camera seeks to marry the O’Briens to the sun, the established source of all life and love which is almost continually fixed in superintendence over their lives (particularly betrothed to the mother, the symbolic manifestation of grace played by Jessica Chastain).
In terms of application and tone, The Revenant is less of a compromise or median of these earlier films, and more so a full combination, a story of hope and light occupying a world that seems cruelly indifferent to both, a telling that sits on the unlikely shared thematic sliver within the Venn Diagram mapping Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla.
There is a multitude of attempted narrations contained inside of The Revenant, with at least two prominent ones. The first is Iñárritu’s traditionally informed but philosophically observed revenge tale. The second is the story told in a language spoken almost exclusively by Emmanuel Lubezki. And if Iñárritu‘s incessant ponderings about a higher form of storytelling strikes some as disingenuous, then so too might my claim that my experience with The Revenant was a spiritual one, if not religious. But it was.
I suppose it’s necessary to step back now, so that I might shift the tone a bit.
Over the last few years, I have seen way too many people that I love locked in battles of terminal consequence, the kinds of fights toward which Leonardo DiCaprio’s grueling performance might stand in as an only moderately metaphoric representation. Also, over the last few years, too many of the people I love have come out on the losing end of those battles. When one hits a stretch of tragedy and loss, when one witnesses too many of those fights-for-survival, it’s impossible to avoid the question of why. Why bother fighting at all?
In my first watch of The Revenant, I was emotionally distraught and then uplifted, moved to awe and wonder, and little of it at the stimulation of the character drama, as engaging as it may have been. There was a more sacred message than that, one communicated by the manner in which Hugh Glass’s most desperate and dangerous circumstances–riding the horse over the cliff, floating in freezing rapids toward a waterfall, crawling inside a skinned carcass for survival–were immediately juxtaposed with astonishing fly-over landscape shots, ground-mounted and upward facing shots of towering trees blanketed in snow and a winter-dimmed sun, or the frigidly uncaring stillness and quiet of frozen mountains. (Immediately after the film, I observed aloud that had I been born before the era of film, I may have died ignorant to the fact that our world was this immense and beautiful.) More than once, the camera plants Glass central in frame as the human element anchor of story and shot, before rotating to reveal a natural danger (i.e. a thunderous avalanche or a massive grizzly) that contextually diminishes the value of his life. And then, of course, when Glass is at his most imperative levels of determined survivalism, Lubezki manages, somehow, to catch the sun fighting between the trees and clouds, a reminder again of the tie between life and light.
The question of “Why bother fighting?” is one that will likely never receive an adequate verbal answer. Religious texts, by their very nature, require a leap of unquestioning faith. Modern doctors, with all of their exposure to academic studies, medical journals, and books of biology and medicine are still frequently at a loss to explain the human spirit’s stubborn refusal to the let the body die when dying seems easiest. But, at least within my personally-informed experience with his latest film, Emmanuel Lubezki has provided a wordless and articulate answer through his developing sacred language of filmic storytelling. The Revenant documents the dangerous wonder of this planet, the striking and complex beauty of our world which, in its immensity, renders life both small and imperative. The volatile, indifferent beauty of the world is the reason it is so necessary for us to stay alive, seeing, and conscious within it. Again, it’s a Capital-T Truth that maybe can not be fully communicated with words, but within The Revenant, it is cleanly articulated with light.
Maybe this is one way to measure a saint: by the mess that occurs when we attempt to speak toward their deserving-ness of the distinction. I set out to speak toward the strength of an artist’s filmography and ended up focusing primarily on his latest effort and the spiritual and private conversation that that film carried with me. I may have lost my way here, but there’s something to be said about that. Among the other official qualifiers, Catholic Saints are expected to have performed three miracles. If I can not on my own reasonably prove Emmanuel Lubezki’s sainthood, I hope to at least attest that one of those miracles was performed on me.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox