When he was still a teenager, Alejandro González Iñárritu worked on a cargo ship and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and up the Mississippi River. This experience allowed him to encounter a wide array of cultures and immerse himself in worlds he had not known before. In a sense, he has never stopped sailing and exploring. From the early Spanish-language Amores Perros to last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman, from the multi-linear, cross-cultural mosaic of Babel to the singular, personal redemption in Biutiful, each new work finds this passionate filmmaker pushing into new geographical, technical, and thematic territories. There is a relentless curiosity and energy, an unquenchable thirst for life, that drives Iñárritu’s filmmaking. The Revenant, which has received twelve Academy Award nominations and will possibly make Iñárritu only the third filmmaker in history to win two consecutive directing Oscars, once again finds the director doing something new and adventurous.
The film, based on the true story of survival and vengeance of the nineteenth century frontiersman Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is the first time Iñárritu has made a film set in the past. In terms of scope, it is also his biggest and most expensive film to date, with elaborate battle sequences, astonishing natural settings, and technically ravishing set-pieces (aided most noticeably by the great cinematographer Emmanuel lubezki). The story of its making is already legendary—the director insisted on shooting in chronological order and in natural light, both rarities in film production, across a harsh wintry landscape, and the cast and crew had to overcome significant natural and logistical challenges (weather condition, light availability, budgetary concerns) to ensure that the production could prevail. But apart from all this, what makes The Revenant memorable is how it carries the same dramatic potency, spiritual rigor, and interest in physical and psychological exploration that have always defined Iñárritu’s work.
On the verge of its release, I had the chance to speak with Iñárritu about the spiritual preoccupations of the film. Here is our full conversation:
You have been making feature films for over fifteen years. You have made films in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Untied States, and you have moved from multi-linear stories about large groups of characters (Babel, Amores Perros) to highly focused stories about the struggles and pains of particular individuals (Biutiful, Birdman). Your career has clearly evolved in fascinating ways. What attracted you to The Revenant at this point in time?
The true event, the factual thing that happened to Hugh Glass two hundred years ago, of being attacked by a bear, being abandoned, and then the difficult, emotionally and spiritually painful survival quest he had to go through, got my attention. My question was: How would a man be shaped by that experience? What’s going on in the mind of somebody who has the will, the endurance, and the resilience to survive? What makes people survive and fight? What is that? And how would a man be transformed and shaped by nature? I felt this was a great opportunity to explore those themes, and to explore the idea of revenge, to understand how revenge works in a human soul. Cinematically, it was already there- the landscape is 20% of the film; it’s the great canvas on which to explore those things with beauty and with poetry. I wanted to submerge the audience in a natural world that doesn’t exist anymore.
The desire for vengeance is at the heart of this film. It is what defines Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, and compels him to stay alive. How do you think the film’s take on vengeance compare to other stories with a similar theme?
Personally, I have never liked the way some western films or some revenge films have suggested that when the hero succeeds in committing revenge, he will live very happily ever after. I don’t believe that. Revenge, from my personal point of view, is an unwholesome emotion. And I wanted to explore in the film– if revenge is hollow, if your meaning of life is revenge, once you accomplish it, then what is the meaning of life? What is after revenge? Most importantly, the question for me in the film was this: Could revenge really bring back what we’ve lost, what we are looking for? Can it bring it all back? I don’t have the answer. Revenge is a primitive emotion we all human beings have, and sometimes it can trigger a lot of things; it can be a driving force for us to survive on a primitive level, it. But my question was if revenge can be transformed, or if something can be learned from it. For me, more than anything, this was a question to be explored in a much deeper way than just wink to the audience, saying, “Ok, revenge is cool.” I think Leonardo DiCaprio’s character struggle through some very painful questions about revenge in the film.
Your past films - from Amores Perros and 21 Grams to Babel and Birdman - all feature complex, tortured characters struggling with various forms of sins and guilt. The Revenant is no exception. Here we have a very visceral depiction of life on the frontier in the early 1800s. Apart from the already harsh physical circumstances surrounding the characters, we have Hugh Glass wrestling with the desire for vengeance while being haunted by visions and memories of his loved ones; he’s also told that vengeance is God’s. There is a very strong spiritual and psychological tension that carries through the entire film.
Yes, I think that was the whole idea. There is no one easy answer to the question of revenge, but I think it’s something nice for people to reflect on. The true, difficult event that happened to Hugh Glass was interesting, but it could also be very pedestrian. As a filmmaker, the most important thing for me was the spiritual dimension of these guys’ journeys.
There is a very animalistic and primitive dimension to these people’s stories, but you can’t judge people- that’s a big mistake to judge people without understanding their context, and the context of this time and the circumstances surrounding these fur trappers were very rough.
There was no law at that time in that part of the world. There was no “west.” There were people from around the world on the frontier- French, British, Canadian, Mexican, Spanish, hundreds of native tribes. The biggest income in the United States at the time was animal pelts. Most of these fur trappers were illiterate, and they were young people, runaways, etc. They were dealing with a lot of threats from the natural world, from the animal world, and from the native tribes around them. They established forts, and they greedily started cutting trees, killing animals, and making huge impacts and causing pains in their community. They were also blinded by a lot of prejudices that are unfortunately very common today in the West. I wanted to bring out a spiritual dimension in the story so you can understand what’s going on in the minds and souls of these people, through images, through Hugh Glass’s dreams, through the way he memorizes his life, what he has lost, what he still has. For me, it was very important to shoot the film this way, to understand this story as more than just a difficult physical adventure; it’s an intimate, interior, emotional adventure, too.
You deal with the theme of colonialism in complicated and powerful ways in this film. It’s not necessarily the central focus, but the uneasy, sometimes outright hostile relationship between indigenous Native Americans and the European fur trappers is a significant part of the story, and the notion that human beings are ravaging the land and brutalizing one another is always hanging there in the background. How did you want to tackle this subject?
Well, I come from Mexico. In Mexico, 10% of the population is indigenous, even now. It’s funny - as a Mexican living in the United States, I share some of that same feeling of being an outsider – my skin color is different, and I have two kids here, so in a way I’m always dealing with identity crisis. Do I belong or not belong here? And obviously, in the time that we are now living in, there’s a lot of xenophobic commentary out there, with some people planting seeds of hate based on very primitive ignorance, perceptions, and prejudices. In Mexico, when the Spanish arrived – if you read Christopher Columbus’s diary and journals, he never wrote about the community; he always wrote about the flora, the fauna, but not about the people, because it took one hundred years for the court of Spain to decide if the people they encountered were human or not. Maybe even longer than that. That’s the kind of ignorance there was.
There’s obviously a foreground in the film - on the surface, you can see some story, but in the background, and in the layers of this film, there’s a lot of things that are more important. For me, the heart of the film is a love story, of a man, who in that time, very progressively embraced a Pawnee family.
Most fur trappers at that time had relations and families with Pawnee, with indigenous Indian women. Many of these fur trappers rejected or hid their families, but some also embraced them. In this case, I want the character of Hugh Glass to embrace the family that he lost, to embrace his mixed-race son. In the time they were living in, and with those racist kinds of things going on, it was a very hard struggle to keep somebody alive. So this is the story of a man that has lost everything- spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
We see different forms of spirituality and religion being referenced in the film – the Native American spirituality of the indigenous tribes; the Christianity brought by the Europeans; Hugh Glass sees ghostly visions of his loved ones. The landscape of the film is haunted. What was your approach to depicting the spiritual side of this particular world?
At that time, there were people from all around the world. Most of them came from Europe, and there were a lot of Catholics and Protestants, with strong spiritual roots. It’s integrated in the film in subtle ways. But sometimes you can see feel that the characters were praising something that were absolutely wrong, or they were saying one thing but doing the exact contrary, which is a contradiction that is a part of our weakness as human beings. This is the character of Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy). I feel like that’s very human.
And there’s this dream sequence where Hugh Glass finds that he’s already dead in the church. In this space of spirituality, he had an encounter with another world. This was a way for me to explore as well as to heal the part of the film that is brutal and very physical. You have these two natures. The balance of the spiritual and the physical is what I’m interested in.
And my metaphor was always this: Nature was healing Hugh Glass. The friendship he had with the Pawnee Indian he met along the way healed him spiritually; being inside the horse healed him physically. He died and was reborn many times. Like plants in nature and the changing of seasons, things die and then are reborn, and it just keeps going. I was interested in exploring this impermanent state of being, this organism of nature.
How would you characterize your own spirituality these days?
I consider myself a spiritual person in the way that I try to be present and aware; I try to live in the moment and be mindful of everything that’s going on around me. I think that’s really my biggest spirituality. But of course, your past, your childhood, is your nature. I was raised as a Catholic, and one of my best friends has been a great spiritual teacher and is very Catholic. Most of the artistic things we normally neglect come from the instinct, and not from a very rational point of view. I’m sure that, consciously or unconsciously, many of the things that I was raised on, the things that I consider important to reflect on, have a role in what I do, when I’m writing and working.
There is, for example, a rejection that I particularly have about violence. I think we now live in a culture where violence is considered brave, and it’s considered cool and entertaining. It’s exploitative. There’s an idolization of violence. I come from a very violent city; I have been witness to violence, and I have sometimes been a victim of violence. I can’t laugh about violence. I cannot use it to exploit it. I can’t. In this film, I try to show that these men were living under very raw, difficult circumstances, and there’s violence integrated in their lives – it’s man against nature, and man against man; everybody is trying to survive, including the animals. But I always try to present violence with a consequence; I always try to show the painful consequences that violence brings. You cannot deny violence, because we are violent, but every act of violence has a painful consequence no matter what. I think it’s important to remind people of that.