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.