Marcos (Marcos Hernández) works for a Mexican general, supervising the raising and lowering of the country's flag and chauffeuring the man's daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), who he's known since her childhood. Only Marcos knows that Ana gets her kicks working at 'the boutique,' a fancy urban brothel, and so he confides in her too, telling her that he and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) kidnapped a baby which died in their care. Ana urges Marcos to turn himself in as his wife jabbers on about a pilgrimage to the virgin. Marcos' soul is being fought for in a "Battle in Heaven."
Writer/director Carlos Reygadas, whose "Japón" was a slow, symbolic meditation on suicide and religion that featured startling and shocking nudity and sex returns with more of the same to lesser results. "Japón's" meditative version of forty days in the desert climaxed with its hero's redemptive intercourse with an old woman. In "Battle in Heaven" Reygadas simply reverses his sexes, the shock value now coming from a young, hip woman 'redeeming' a pot-bellied older man through sexual acts. The director's repeated use of nude tableaux and genital closeups does nothing to promote his story.
That's not to say that "Battle in Heaven" is a bad film, just a rehash of earlier ideas, this time with broad political allegory in an urban environment. Marcos and his wife's crime is never pictured in any way, which makes his expressionless hero's battle more than a bit uninvolving. Yet, Reygadas's film is never boring and, in fact, completely engages with its overt and hysterical religious climax.
The film was cast entirely with non-professionals and despite Hernández's sad sack blandness (the actor smiles only once, and it is, of course, meaningful), he makes a connection with Mushkadiz that feels true. The film is carefully designed with crisp cinematography (Diego Martínez Vignatti, "Japón"), studiously composed images and with a tailored sound design (watch the scene where Marcos picks up Ana - we only see him in the vehicle's rear view and only hear her talking on her cell phone). Ana's consistent address of Marcos by name in every sentence she utters to him, however, is an artificial device that becomes annoying.
Reygadas is clearly a talented filmmaker, but one hopes his dual obsession with ugly sex and provincial Catholicism has been expunged with his sophomore effort. His first film gave us far more to chew on.
Marcos and his wife kidnap a baby in Mexico City and the child dies. This off camera action switches to naked and very large Marcos having fellatio performed on him by a beautiful young woman with tears streaming down her face. (Yes, this is graphically shown on the big screen, so beware, you faint-hearted or easily offended.) This begins a very unusual character study by sophomore south-of-the-border filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas, in “Battle in Heaven.”
Director Reygadas has a singularly unique view of human sex. His debut full-length film, “Japon,” featured a suicidal, confused middle-aged man who bonds with a wizened old woman named Ascension, culminating in the sexual union between the two. The images are both repelling and intriguing. The helmer must have thought that this unlikely union should sensibly flow into an even more sexually explicit – and, again, repelling and intriguing – tale that is influenced by the works of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock.
The image of an obese chauffeur, Marcos (played by non-actor Marcos Hernandez), having graphic sex with his boss’s daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), approaches perverse eroticism. But, when the camera turns to Marcos and his equally hefty wife having mute sex it verges on the esthetically obscene. Couched in this string of strange sexual acts is a story of grief, penance and, ultimately redemption.
I think the copious amount of sex is aimed at the (weirdly) prurient interests of the helmer. His use of non-actors is intended to give a reality to the film but this works only intermittently. Long, lingering shots of naked Marcos staring at the camera are not the stuff that makes for mainstream audience interest. But, the religious metaphors, Marcos need for redemption and a sudden, unexpected act of violence make “Battle in Heaven” like a train wreck: you can’t help but watch.
I can’t say that I dislike a film that has both esoteric messages and erotic content. “Battle in Heaven” uses music (one bit of harpsichord score is nicely done but at a deafening sound level) and interesting camerawork, by Diego Martinez Vignatti, to good effect. This is an enigma of a film and I give it a quizzical C+.
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