Though Leonardo Decaprio’s arguably overdue Oscar may have stolen the show during this year’s Academy Awards, one must not overlook the setting and cinematography that provided a playground for his performance. The Revenant – which captures a moment in history, when civilization takes fiercely against the unknown - is a visual masterpiece, an affirmation of timeless beauty, a cinematic search for poetry and order, in a land so pure that it can hardly contain mankind.
Though there is much to be said of this latest story from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the film’s uncomplicated narrative line allows breathing room for The Revenant to become a work of art. Masterful cinematography, with powerful nuances of realism, wide shots and extreme close-ups, engage viewers at a visceral and unsettlingly intimate level.
Iñárritu paints a corner in a larger picture of invasion, depicting the frontier from the perspective of a few men and of how they make sense of their world: the frontier marks the border with the foreign they must conquer, the savage they must dominate, the darkness they must overcome.
A visual progression of landscape, of valleys, mountains and rivers, echoes the journey of these men: their running away from danger is inescapably a running towards a different danger. Their story is thus informed by endurance and resilience, rendered visually through intense, violent scenes, filmed in long takes, and immersed in heavy tones of dark blue.
Cinematography is conceptually loaded: the pervading blue hue gives the film a sombre tone, creating the impression of a permanent dawn, a struggle of civilisation to penetrate these dark corners of the world. The heavy colour correction Emmanuel Lubezki opts for brings depth and arresting realism to scenes of gruesome violence, set against a majestic natural background. This antithesis speaks to subsequent existential and moral tensions, which are explored and reinterpreted at various visual levels.
The choice to use natural light enhances the thematic elements of the story, while giving a sense of presence, a heaviness of time, which imposes a particular rhythm – for movement, travel, survival, death. The sun itself shines with hints of coldness, never really bright, never fully capable of penetrating the landscape. Darkness has its own storyline, a palpable density, a visceral presence.
It is only through memories and fire that a lighter spectrum is conceived, to contrast the icy blue tones. Glass´ memories, dreams and visions shift the mood of the film, for a short while: he remembers his past life in calm shades of brown and soft earthly tones, which seem to slow down movement and time. If aggressive blue brings veracity and immediacy to the story, these softer nuances evoke eternity, distant beauty, and hope. For the audience, they are oases of warmth, a refuge from almost somatic reactions to the glacial visual narrative. Use of light is crucial to the feel and mood throughout the entire film.
The film ends with a powerful close-up on Glass´ shivering face, as his direct gaze meets the camera, in a breach of film-making protocol. This is itself a violent gesture, meant to be unsettling and challenging to the viewer. Unlike the first sequence of the film – one of Glass´ soft-toned memories – this last scene maintains the harsh dark toning of a cold, sharp reality. Turning away from this ice-cold and piercing gaze, we might find ourselves shivering, an indication that we are witnesses to a story of deep darkness and abiding light; an infallibly painted story that will never end.
Words: Elena Stanciu