Thursday, May 19, 2011

Battle in Heaven (2005)****1/2

No filmmaker working today creates alternate universes with the cleverness or conviction of Carlos Reygadas. But in lieu of vampires, monstrous aliens or azure-skinned extraterrestrials, Reygadas populates his parallel worlds with the tortured souls of the lonely and the lost. His austere, melancholy tales feature settings and characters that at first glance seem remarkable only for their banality. Then, in his unhurried, deliberate fashion, Reygadas proceeds to deconstruct the familiar before our very eyes, until the physical and existential moorings of his characters crumble like moldy planks. Unsupported by the laws of nature, they drift into a world that has been fantastically altered: deceased Mennonites rise from their deathbeds, Bach concertos blare from gas stations and gnarled, ancient matrons become objects of intense desire. The barricade between the spheres of flesh and spirit becomes a thin vapor with Reygadas serving as tour guide. But be advised his cinematic excursions are designed for the hardy, and the accommodations are far from posh.

Set in natively surrealist Mexico City, Battle in Heaven is a measured and deliberate unspooling of the muffled desperations of a paunchy, middle-aged lummox named Marcos (Marcos Hernandez). On the surface, his life appears so unrelentingly dull even Reygadas’ camera seems to lose interest; the device often stepping out for daydream-like 360 degree pans of local architecture while waiting for Marcos to break out of his periodic stupefied trances. Reygadas is hardly the first to use this technique – Bertolucci was an aficionado and Scorsese worked it beautifully in Taxi Driver – and here it casts Marcos squarely in the judgment seat. Reygadas wants his audience to identify and sympathize with Marcos out of base humanitarian instinct, but he is issuing a warning to proceed with caution.

Churning turmoil lurks underneath Marcos’ placid countenance, as he and his dour chub of a wife (Bertha Ruiz) have launched a plot to kidnap the infant son of a well-to-do acquaintance (Rosalinda Ramirez). Through an implied general incompetence, the child has died, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Marcos with bitter recriminations and an evening of un-photogenic sex to succor their wounds. But even this enormous guilt does not totally account for Marcos’ confused withdrawal, for a seductive young woman named Ana (Anapola Mushkadez) has just returned to Mexico City. And thanks to a shared history of forbidden secrets, the pair exists in a wretched symbiosis.

Battle in Heaven contains many sexually explicit sequences devoid of any hint of romanticism. Reygadas presents the participants as little more than sides of beef, awaiting inspection and shipment. To Marcos, sexual congress is a stripping away not only of clothing, but the covenants of civilization in a guilt-ridden act of degradation. To Ana, it’s pleasurable recreation; something to do while passing the time. Reygadas confounds expectations by his starkly clinical approach and transcends moral vindictiveness. That burden is left to the slow witted Marcos; his battered psyche eventually serving as the prosecution’s star witness.

The cinema of Carlos Reygadas will appear plodding to most viewers, yet he crams every frame with food for thought, some of it ultimately indigestible. A number of thematic motifs run through Battle in Heaven like narrative capillaries. Marcos is frequently placed on the periphery of large groups, whose unity of purpose stands in sharp contrast to his baffled floundering. An off-key drum and bugle detachment serves as a powerful reminder to Marcos of all the reasons he is unfit for society, while a massive throng of religious pilgrims becomes a cleansing river that washes Marcos away on currents of the abject. Battle in Heaven takes place in a world that makes the mystical mundane while imbuing the ordinary with darkly mysterious underpinnings. It is not comfortable, entertaining or even fully understandable. But just try to forget it.


JB said...

Really nice review, Bunchie. An engaging read with a number of sharp observations. I like that you dug into the narrative, talking it at face value, without drawing too many summations from it, because it seems the film is fractured by nature, resists generalizations, and a number of critics who've tackled it begin to sound false precisely when the go in the direction of telling what it's all about, that it possesses a single unifying metaphor, polemic or aesthetic purpose (though it has shards of all of these things). My only point of contention is to do with your comment about how Reygadas films bodies and sex. I feel very much that he's trying to bridge the dispassionate, materialist perspective and the transcendental one (perhaps akin to Bresson, above all), not only in the enigmatic bookend scenes, but in his (not unhumorous) use of inserts, the close-ups of genitals. Yet what is sex is this movie? It seems almost to exist outside of the narrative logic, peculiar as it may already be. It seems elsewhere, unlikely in its class/beauty pairings. Maybe it comes from heaven.

Bunched Undies said...

Thanks for your comments JB, which frankly I found much more interesting than my review. Yes, you are quite right that the sex scenes do seem to take place in an altered world...or perhaps an altered, altered world. It was certainly a refreshing break from a number of recent films that show the participants engaged in something that more closely resembles professional wrestling.
With these scenes Reygadas and his actors show impressive, extraordinary trust and courage.
I was actually had a line in there for awhile about "Carlos Reygadas films sex the way Carlos Reygadas should film sex." Or something like that. But his depiction is perfect for this film - which I may rewatch tonight.
As for it occuring in Heaven... a most astute observation. He certainly set up that interpetation with bookended scenes. I wonder if it's an idea that could be applied to his other films as well?

Anonymous said...

I thought Battle In Heaven was an interesting mess at best. I think the reason we must 'resist generalisations' when taking about it is because i don't even think Carlos had a clear idea of what he wanted to say. Does he really take that religious/redemption/cleansing sequence seriously? Or is he just messing with us? I felt there was a huge conflict in both his use of form and the ideas he was exploring here. Japon i felt the conflict just in the use of form.

Silent Light is the most consistent film he has made but ironically it's also the most derivative.

Compare him to say Pedro Costa, and the difference in originality is striking.

There are traces of a unique style in Carlos's films, but his voice isn't loud enough just yet.

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