Battle in Heaven: Mexican Carlos (“Japon”) Reygadas Second Film

“Battle in Heaven,” the second film from gifted Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, who made strong impression with “Japon,” was dismissed in Cannes (where it premiered last year) as both pretentious and portentous–unfairly, I think.

The film’s imagery is so intense and its intent so ambitious that they compensate for the elusive narrative, one that’s full of religious symbolism and makes more promises that it could possibly deliver.

“Battle in Heaven” may be one of the year’s most controversial films, not least due to its graphic sexuality. It’s hard to predict how the Rating Board–and the American public–will react to a film that violates several taboos.

The film portrays unabashedly several sexual acts, fellatio in the pre-credit sequence, in almost real time. It also shows sex in an unadorned manner between the kinds of characters that would never engage in sex in a Hollywood movie. In fact, it’s doubtful that the central couple in Reygadas’ film would be cast as protagonists to begin with. Perhaps more importantly, “Battle in Heaven” disregards the double standards regarding male and female nudity, and we get to see the genitalia of both genders, but particularly the male’s, before and after the sexual intercourse.

Let me depict the pre-credit scene in detail. The screen dissolves from black to reveal a close-up of a mans emotionless face. The camera starts to pan down his naked chubby body, revealing his shoulders, his chest and his gut. As the shot moves past his large belly, a female’s head is exposed. The back of the head is shown moving in a manner that suggests oral sex. When the shot finally exposes the expression on Ana’s face, it’s clear that we are witnessing a sexual act that neither party particularly enjoys.

The narrative interfaces social class, religion, and sexuality in an intriguing way.

Stylistically, too, the film is interesting. The text is book-ended by the repetition of two ritualistic events: an act of fellatio and the raising and lowering of a gigantic Mexican flag in Mexico City.

The character that links these two actions is Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), the chauffer of the general who supervises the daily flag ceremonies. When Marcos picks up the generals daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) at the airport, we recognize her as the female participant in the erotic episode that begins the film.

Marcos is the only member of Anas household who is aware that she leads a double life. Though a child of Mexicos political elite, Anna works part-time in a seedy Mexico City brothel, not for the money but as an act of rebellion, debasement–and masochism. The intimacy that has developed from sharing this secret with Marcos has now become physical too, unbeknownst to Marcos’ wife or Anna’s boyfriend.

On this particular day, Marcos seems troubled. When Ana questions him about his concerns, he confesses of a secret. He and his wife (Berta Ruiz) have kidnapped an infant for ransom and the baby has died in their custody. As the police draw closer, Ana urges Marcos to turn himself in.

But in the end, Marcos seeks redemption from a higher power. A clash that reminds Marcos of his true station in life, and another death prefigures, brings this tortured soul to join a crowd of pilgrims approaching the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The second half of the film deals with Marcos’ wish to die, the way he looks for death and the way he’s granted his wish.

While it’s the graphic sex in the urban drama of “Battle in Heaven” that has grabbed headlines in festivals, the film is decidedly more than just a flesh-fest. Vividly shot on the streets of Mexico City, it offers a unique examination of guilt that revolves around the taciturn but curiously moving figure of chauffeur and part-time child kidnapper.

As urgent and melodramatic as the issues sound, “Battle In Heaven” is not plot but character and mood-driven. It’s not an easy movie to watch since scenes differ radically in interest and tone. Yet, the film’s cumulative power is undeniable, due to Reygadas’ intense and innovative imagery, particularly in the closing chapters that depict the religious pilgrimage, where Marco’s deep personal and religious crisis comes to a halt.

Though “Japon” is a better picture than “Battle in Heaven,” the two films show thematic and stylistic continuity. Death wish links the two movies, albeit in different ways. Cast entirely with non-actors, Japon told the powerfully uninflected story of a middle-aged painter from Mexico City who travels to a remote mountain village to commit suicide. To attain serenity, he stays at the farmhouse of an old devoutly Catholic widow. Inexplicably, he is unexpectedly re-invigorated by the forces of the natural world that surrounds him.

The extreme realism of Reygadas style blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary cinema. The sense of the space that surrounds and impinges on the characters becomes a crucial variable to the overall emotional power of the unfolding tragedy. The gaze of Reygadas’ films is unflinching and explicit, whether the subject matter is a vast landscape, a simple meal, or an act of intercourse between people of vastly different circumstances and ages.

One of the characteristics of Reygadas style that has perhaps inevitably attracted the most attention is his depiction of physical intimacy between his characters. At a time when there seems to be vogue for scenes of hardcore sex in movies, from Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” to Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” (both compromised pictures despite graphic audacity).

Reygadas objects strongly to the notion that explicit depiction of sex automatically knocks a movie out of the realm of fiction into documentary. For him, “the most important aspect of what happens during sex is what happens on the inside, not on the outside. Movies about sex that concentrate on the outside in order to excite us are pornographic, and I am absolutely not making pornography. If Marcos and his wife are making love, the point is not to establish the fact that they have made love. What matters is what you can learn about their relationship from the specific way they make love.”

A straightforward description of the plot of Battle in Heaven would make it sound like traditional melodrama or noir crime thriller, or even a tempestuous verismo opera, which it is not. Reygadas is obviously not interested in narrative per se; he has described his film as an “almost classical Greek tragedy.”

What interests him is the people and they way they live, especially their view of the world–in this case Marcos peculiar and distorted view. However, realizing that narrative is still an integral part of cinema, and not knowing “how to get around that,” he has chosen a pretext, a storyline or “spinal cord that links things together. Reygadas’ pretext is the epidemic of kidnapping-for-profit that has plagued Mexico in recent years. According to official estimates, as many as 3,000 people a year are abducted in Mexico, and government officials and wealthy foreign executives are no longer the only targets. This aspect makes “Battle of Heaven” both timelier and more urgent.

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