Movie Review
Battle In Heaven
2005
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Cast: Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz, Bertha Ruiz
B+


an unsightly middle-aged man is expressionlessly staring at the camera. The long shot, set against a muted background, trails down the man’s naked body until what seems a kneeling bush of dreadlocked hair thwarts the further visual exploration of the man’s anatomy. From the following shot’s altered angle it transpires the hair belongs to Ana, an unconventionally beautiful young woman, and we are then treated, with crude graphical accuracy, to an almost gratuitous act of oral intercourse between the two unlikely partners. Except that, for Carlos Reygadas, sex is never gratuitous, and to boldly open a film with such graphic imagery is nothing if a decidedly snug mise-en-scène approach which readily sets the pace for what follows.

Battle In Heaven is the second feature from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, an unconventionally trained filmmaker whose first full length, Japón, was a poetically composed story of a suicidally inclined man’s final journey through rural Mexico. It was a tale of existential longing, hidden desires, and sexual despair that shares more than just the director’s name with its successor. If Japón was an elegiac but firm establishment of ground rules and creative principles, Battle In Heaven is a placid but disquieting analysis of guilt, desire, and social conformity which owes as much to the vapid sensibilities of Tarkovsky as it does to the new wave of Mexican cinema realism.

Though structurally and stylistically disparate, Battle In Heaven sees Reygadas employ the formative interposition of a number of visual and ideological motifs first introduced in Japón, the most evident of which is the haunting use of the Mexican landscape as a charismatic performer (the blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo of Japón star Magdalena Flores is a close second).

The story is constructed around chauffeur Marcos (played by Marcos Hernández, a driver who once worked for Reygadas’ father) and his wife’s (a grotesque Bertha Ruiz) moral path to salvation after the two are faced with the unexpected death of the baby they kidnapped. Perhaps aware of the fragility of his own freedom, Marcos spontaneously confesses the crime to his boss’s daughter Ana (played by untrained non-actress Anatola Mushkadiz), a part-time prostitute who then embarks on a liberating if disturbingly uncommitted sexual relationship with Marcos.


To tackle a thin but morally heavy plot whilst maintaining credibility is Reygadas’ biggest challenge. In Battle In Heaven the idea of guilt does not carry a moral burden per se, or at least, Reygadas does not seem concerned with validating his protagonist. The notion of culpability, introduced with a crime the act of which is never exposed but only circuitously alluded to, is explored from a more subconscious perspective, as a quasi-psychoanalytical quest for absolution, not least because Reygadas offers a clear resolution through acceptance. Marcos, in fact, isn’t plagued by the moral implications of his wrongdoings—nor are we at any point motivated to question or condemn his deeds—he is rather afflicted by a spiritual search for redemption. It is this distant but brave moral ambiguity, complemented by the beautiful cinematography and subtle sonic nuances, that is perhaps the movie’s biggest strength. Marcos’s conflict with his inner self is the foundation of the movie’s existential yearning (already a theme of Japón), and as such reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s visceral treatment of the human psyche. On the other hand, the almost visceral intimations of sexual desires, common of Reygadas, are reminiscent of some kind of Lynchian animalistic intimacy.

The characteristic use of long takes and the inventive intercalation of musical gradations ambitiously construct an affecting if constrained spatial context, but this works to the film’s advantage as much as it detracts from it. The film’s (and Reygadas’, for that matter) biggest problem seems to be the lack of a broader contextualisation. We are often served too little justification and our involvement is at times precluded by what frequently feels like an overly isolated series of events (the crime is never explained nor justified, Ana’s role is too loosely characterized). The use of non-professionals further thrusts the movie towards exploitative filmmaking rather than metaphysical analysis.

It is scenes like the one in which Marcos and Ana cross paths with a nurse carting an old disabled patient that leave you baffled as to what exactly you are being made to watch. And while some might immediately ask just how far from porn this is, it is a strong grip on its subjects and a clear determination to evolve that puts Battle In Heaven above such downgrading comparisons, albeit only temporarily.


By: Sandro Matosevic
Published on: 2005-11-16
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