Less than a year ago, director Alejandro González Iñárritu won three Academy Awards (best picture, best directing and best original screenplay) for Birdman, a comedy that signaled a potentially more lighthearted new direction for a filmmaker known for rather bleak films about human suffering. Iñárritu’s first three films, after all, comprised what came to be known as the “Death Trilogy”: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). His fourth and least acclaimed film, Biutiful (2011), was criticized for being a “spectacle of unrelieved misery” and an “oppressive 150-minute dirge.”
Iñárritu’s latest film doesn’t quite revert to the miserablist depths of his earlier films, but it is certainly no breezy Birdman. No, The Revenant (in theaters on Christmas Day) is stark, bleak and punishing for most of its 156 minutes.
Inspired by the true survival story of 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film picks up Iñárritu’s familiar explorations of visceral portraits of emotional and physical suffering, this time set in the snowy wilds of the American west. Shot in 100% natural light and freezing temperatures by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant may be Iñárritu’s most beautiful film; its scenic sublimity provides crucial catharsis for the film’s relentlessly harrowing story.
Among other things, the film explores the morality of revenge and eye-for-an-eye justice, presenting an alternate view to other Hollywood takes on the subject (including the films of another director debuting a violent western on Christmas Day).
Raised Catholic and no stranger to suffering (he and his wife lost a son two days after his birth), Iñárritu is a filmmaker with deep empathy for people and a profound understanding of the prisons of pain they can languish within.
CT had a chance to speak with Iñárritu about God, revenge, suffering, and spirituality in The Revenant.
Christianity Today: The Revenant strikes me as almost a post-apocalyptic film, where God has sort of left the building and left humanity to destroy each other and fight to survive in a Darwinian, brutal way. And yet God does show up in various places in the film: in the ruins of churches, in images of Jesus and crosses. Where do you think God’s presence or absence is most evident in the film?
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu: I think that honestly God is around every moment, in nature and in those beautiful landscapes. We shot at the end of the day every day, at dusk time, which I always say is the time when God speaks. And we have to listen. Every object speaks . . . every plant and every shine in the snow, every tree are like soldiers of this planet. Everything is totally revealed in another level, another dimension. These men were absolutely surrounded by it, but they couldn’t see it. There was a lot of ignorance, a lot of illiterate, young, poor guys who were basically surviving a lot of threats. And between them there was never an understanding but there was a lot of prejudice… And they got kind of lost. Very sadly, that’s kind of the planted seeds of the world we are living now. We are blinded. But I think the beauty of existence is all around all of them, all the time.
CT: There is a real beauty to the film; the way it’s shot, the artistry of nature. It reminded me of Romanticism’s idea of the sublime being the sort of simultaneous beauty and terror of nature. Was this sense of a sublime, almost spiritual encounter with nature something you wanted to explore in the The Revenant?