Sadly, in 2006 opening your film with a seemingly real blow job isn't quite the shot across the bow of good taste that it once was. Finishing right where you started perhaps ups the ante slightly, but if Carlos Reygadas thinks his by-now infamous bookends are throwing anyone for a loop then he's probably sorely mistaken. I'll grant that perhaps it is less the blow job itself, and more the idea of lovely young Anapola Mushkadiz devotedly sucking off fat, bespectacled Marcos Hernandez--both nonactors--that's at stake here, and this testing of viewer revulsion may mark the necessary point of intersection with the rest of the film's concerns.
That said, I think Reygadas is far too smart and careful a filmmaker to fall so easily into the "Hey, look over here!" trap of minor scandal that has marred the work of someone like Catherine Breillat or, worse, Todd Solondz. On the basis of the seriousness of purpose that is throughout his grand, wild first feature, "Japon," I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there's a reason for all this fellatio beyond the potential shock value of the image, even if after puzzling the work over for a while I'm not quite sure I've untangled the boldfaced statements he's trying to make about class, sexuality, and Mexico. Given that "Japon" also hinges around fairly graphic intercourse between a middle-aged intellectual from the city and an extremely wizened village woman, perhaps this is ground to tread carefully on. Fool me once and all that.
"Battle in Heaven"'s setup is simple even if the directions Reygadas may want to push it in are not: lower-class Marcos and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) have kidnapped a child for ransom money, only to inadvertently kill it before they can collect. Marcos works as a chauffeur to Ana (Mushkadiz), daughter of a wealthy Mexico City general, and his wife sells trinkets in a sterile subway tunnel. After picking up Ana at the airport early in the film, and based on a quid pro quo we're not quite conscious of, Marcos confesses his crime to her. Her response is marked by a mixture of disinterest and concern. Even if she can acknowledge some sort of affection for this man who has been her driver for years, it's more on the order of how a grown woman might consider the loss of an old toy. "Marcos, you must turn yourself into the police," she advises, a mantra that he'll hold onto until the end of the film. They continue on to the "boutique" in which Ana works and she pityingly and coyly coaxes him inside. Somewhat unsurprisingly given her sales pitch, the boutique turns out to be a brothel (a secret which Marcos has successfully been keeping for years), and after a failed attempt with another prostitute, Marcos confesses he only wants Ana, who, of course spurns him. This brief sequence from the airport to the brothel sketches out the major dialectic action of the film: upper vs. lower (class), beauty vs. beastly, and if it's perhaps a little schematic it's due to the undue weight the rest of the film places on it.
Before Marcos heads to the airport, we see him marching across an open plaza behind an army drum corp participating in a flag-raising ritual repeated later in the film. The crude juxtaposition of the immensity of the Mexican flag with the immensity of Marcos's body from the opening, more dreamlike sequence, is obvious, and perhaps a little cheap. "This is Mexico!" Reygadas seems to be shouting, and the first half of his film feels mired in this kind of suppressive statement-making, when all the second half of the film wants to do is torch it all and laser in on its nominal hero's increasingly disturbed, Ana-obsessed fantasy life. The switch from sociology to psychology occurs after a fairly graphic and unexpected session of lovemaking with Ana is revealed as nothing more than a couch-bound masturbatory fantasy. Immediately after, Marcos and his family leave the city for the country (revealing in the process just whose child they've stolen and killed), and it's there where the film experiences its grandest visual and spiritual epiphany with Marcos shrouded in fog, alone on a mountain. It's in capturing Marcos against the landscape, and in similarly visionary shots and sequences (a nude Marcos framed against a white wall looking like a distended Francis Bacon model, a cut from a living room into a televised football match, the frenetic confusion of the religious pilgrimage that ends the film) where Reygadas reveals his alignment not to the relatively staid breed of current Mexican filmmaker epitomized by Inarritu or Cuaron but rather to the more original (and completely cracked) Alejandro Jodorowsky. Both are plagued by fantastically grand visions (track down "El Topo," if you dare), a surfeit of imagination and ideas, and only nominal control over their own powers. Regardless of his film's ultimate success, Reygadas is certainly up to something, even if in the mess of images and ideas the central thrust is, at times, hard to get a handle on. In the end, has he somehow used "Battle in Heaven" to draw an outline, however shaky, of Mexico after all? Never been there myself, but given the filmmaker he is now and that I'm confident he will grow into, I wouldn't be at all surprised.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed by Magnolia Pictures.]
Take 2 by Kristi Mitsuda
Directed with breathtaking precision, "Battle in Heaven" moves along with a placidity that both belies and reinforces its movingly quiet description of desperation in Mexico City. While director Reygadas decontextualizes everything by preceding master shots with abstracted images, an exhilaratingly impressionistic visual and aural design (as complex as any by David Lynch) plunges us into the perspective of flag-raising supervisor and chauffeur Marcos. Reygadas funnels our awareness so that we specifically see (sharing his blurred vision when his glasses break) and hear (background sounds rise and fade as he accordingly tunes in or out) from Marcos's point of view and so grants us a way into the interior of an otherwise impenetrable character. Even his iconic posture--standing straight up with feet planted firmly, his hands lolling in loose fists alongside--is filled with ambiguity: He could as easily bolt as stay put. And, though mostly focalized through him, the advantage occasionally passes to others; to Ana, for example, as she lies in bed next to him. The frame, in an approximation of her gaze as Marcos sits beside her, allows us an intimate view of his midsection, the rolls of fat perceivable beneath a tattered white tank top, and, for a moment, you sit in wonder at the exquisite tenderness of this long look.
So accustomed are we to seeing only one body type in movies that any other represented provides a startling amount of texture. I love how the physical appearances of each manifest unspoken aspects of their class, their lives. How Ana's artfully half-dreaded locks and lithe frame bespeak so clearly her privilege. How we know what Marcos and his obese wife and son eat and how they spend their free time. Rarely has such corpulence been beheld onscreen, and in as great detail--the camera amply captures sagging skin and varicose veins--as it's presented here. Even more seldom (ever?) are such bodies displayed in the nude, and with this brand of non-judgmental grace free from grotesquerie. Lending "Battle" a sheen of scandal, the fuss over its depictions of sexuality feels to me as wrongheaded as the furor over "The Brown Bunny"'s blow job. Lensed from fiercely private angles, the sex isn't supposed to be shocking, but natural, even mundane. And the raw closeness of it--stripped of prudishness, reduced simply to human flesh--attributes the characters an arresting mortality so that when one ultimately commits an act of violence against another, it feels the more terrible, and irrevocably real.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]
Take 3 By Nick Pinkerton
Carlos Reygadas's sophomore feature is, no doubt, a movie designed with provocation as priority #1; any film that juxtaposes an inter-class blowjob with the lofting of a national flag (the Mexican, in this case) in its opening passages is pretty obviously hoping to turn the theater into an abattoir for sacred cows. It might help American viewers to mentally substitute Old Glory here, in order to put Reygadas's opening salvo in context--and to crystallize how close the director's shock tactic grandstanding brings him to the level of a Marilyn Manson for the Cannes crowd.
The reiterative proximity in "Battle in Heaven" between the representative symbols and monuments of Mexico City and a piquantly sordid story that's bristling with class tension and grotesquerie makes me squirm, the same way that spate of "American"-prefixed movie titles a few years back did--it's just so obvious. Which is a shame because, looking just past this, you'll find a movie whose aesthetic integrity is enormous, and whose narrative confrontation could land a richter-scale-registering blow without being so gauche, and thus so easy to write off.
The crucial image--a princess sucking off a peasant--is probably the single most potent of the art-house hardcore explosion of recent years. And this moment doesn't define the movie--as in, say, the money shots, splooge, or blood, in "The Brown Bunny" or "Cache"--nearly so much as the reviews of hopelessly dirty-minded scribes like myself might have you believe. Reygadas is a serious moviemaker with a gift for creating new tonal values; I can't think of anything quite like the baton of subjective point of view that passes between characters in "Battle in Heaven," occasionally breaking into free-floating ellipses where the drifting symbiotic camera seems to be looking for a host body. The result is a queer layering of perspective, and cinema that will be rewardingly revisited long after penetration has colonized the multiplex.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]