The second feature film directed by Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, Battle in Heaven begins with a doozy of a slow-mo blowjob. On screen, an expressionless, middle-aged man stands front and center, his hangdog face and sagging chest bathed in harsh white light, while a mass of blond dreadlocks (and the mouth that they drape) moves steadily back and forth across his uncircumcised penis. The man, we will come to learn, is called Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) and makes something less than a living as the private driver for a military general. The dreadlocked one, it turns out, is none other than the general’s 20-something daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), whom Marcos also drives, and who works in a “boutique” where — well, let’s just say that a lot more clothes are coming off than being put on. And though Battle in Heaven’s opening display of oral gymnastics turns out to be but a dream, it is one that, like so many nocturnal transmissions, proves a sign of things to come.
Set amid the smog-choked, traffic-jammed, overpopulated environs of contemporary Mexico City, Battle in Heaven is a study in depressed, impoverished (financially and spiritually) characters trudging forth through their subterranean, insectlike existences — and just in case we don’t get the point, Reygadas gives us a scene in which Marcos is literally stepped on by an irate woman who accuses him of looking up her skirt. Marcos’ obese and equally expressionless wife (Bertha Ruiz) leads a life of near-comic desperation selling alarm clocks from a makeshift booth in a subway-station tunnel, the assorted beeps and rings crescendoing into a torturous echo. Together, sometime shortly before the film begins, they have kidnapped a neighbor woman’s infant baby, who has subsequently died in their care before they could even ask for the ransom money. But as we quickly discover, that botched abduction is less the cause of Marcos’ fermenting misery than it is one more stop on his descent into an earthly hell.
In its focus on an alienated man’s search for meaning in a numbing, oppressive world, Battle in Heaven inevitably recalls Reygadas’ striking 2002 debut feature, Japon, in which a suicidal drifter stumbled into a middle-of-nowhere Mexican village and found solace in the arms (and eventually the bed) of a shriveled, elderly widow named Ascen (as in ascension). Peopled by nonprofessional “actors” worthy of a Goya tableau, and stunningly photographed in sepia-toned wide screen, that movie was unmistakably an “art film,” consciously made under the spell of Antonioni, Kiarostami and Tarkovsky and shot through with a youthful effrontery (Reygadas was all of 31 at the time) that seemed determined to better them all. But it was also a beguiling, sometimes inscrutable and ultimately deeply affecting movie about salvation sought and found in the most unlikely of places and, to my mind, one of the most thoroughly impressive first films of recent years.
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Japon may not have made much of a dent at the box office, but it immediately established Reygadas as the enfant terrible of the new Mexican cinema, and, watching Battle in Heaven, I wished that it hadn’t. For whereas Reygadas’ first film felt like the unadulterated expression of a raw and original artistic voice, his second bears all the markings of a movie made for a constituency, as if Reygadas had spent much of the time in between projects standing outside of himself, pondering, “What would Carlos Reygadas do for an encore?” Well, how about making a glib assault on Mexican national identity that is unrelentingly in-your-face in all the ways that Japon was enigmatic and subtle, and which is quite a few other things that Japon never was — namely cynical, contemptuous (of its characters and its audience) and opportunistic.
In a way, Reygadas blows his wad right there in the opening: Whereas Japon’s own deservedly notorious sex scene, arriving late in the film, was transfixing both for its strangeness and its grotesque beauty — as if we were beholding the still-smoldering ruins of some vanquished civilization — Battle’s introductory blowjob is merely grotesque, a kind of stunt that accomplishes little other than ensuring that few of the film’s ticket buyers will be late getting to their seats. And it sets the tone for much of what follows: a scene where Marcos glances disgustedly at a passing religious procession and remarks, “They’re a flock of sheep”; another in which Marcos masturbates to a televised soccer match; and, of course, several more graphic bouts of coitus — including the ultimate bedding-down of Marcos and Ana, this time in the real world — during which religious iconography is reliably close at hand. Reygadas wants to make sure that, before he’s done, he’s left no sacred Mexican ritual — sex, soccer, Catholicism — undefiled, and he wants to make sure you know that’s what he’s doing. If Japon was Reygadas’ objet d’art, then Battle is his objet de scandale, his elephant-dung Jesus, and just when you think there’s an off chance the movie might make it all the way to the end credits without the ultimate, grand guignol gesture you so badly fear is coming, Reygadas stages a climactic bout of murder and incontinence that is indeed shocking, but only for how fatally predictable it is.
There would seem to be no more to say, and yet Battle in Heaven cannot be so easily dismissed — indeed, it is that rare failed film that leaves you as eager to see what its maker will do next as you were when you walked in the door. For Reygadas shows a striking command of cinematic language, and that is something that even all of Battle in Heaven’s ineffectual sturm und drang cannot fully disguise. There are unforgettable (in the good way) images here, not least the stunned intensity with which Reygadas’ Bressonian amateurs stare fixedly into the camera, daring us to break their gaze. And twice in the film, there are moments when, following the logical ending of a scene, Reygadas’s camera drifts off on exploratory odysseys — including one magnificent 360-degree pan across the Mexico City skyline — as if it had grown tired of the story and characters at hand and were setting out in search of worthier material. I have little doubt that it will soon be found.
BATTLE IN HEAVEN | Written and directed by CARLOS REYGADAS | Produced by PHILIPPE BOBER, ?SUSANNE MARIAN, REYGADAS, JAIME ROMANDIA and JOSEPH ROUSCHOP | Released by Tartan Films | At Laemmle Sunset 5