Judge Brendan Babish doesn't want anyone to get too excited by the promise of graphic sexual content.
Warning: Contains graphic sex. For mature audiences only.
Two years ago writer/director Carlos Reygadas made a splash with his debut film, Japon. Now riding the crest of rising interest in contemporary Mexican cinema—pioneered by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros)—Reygadas's second film, Battle in Heaven was a considered a formidable entrant in competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Facts of the Case
The doughy Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) and his, hmmm, let's say, voluptuous wife (Bertha Ruiz) have abducted the infant child of a Mexican general, and now the baby has died in their care. Marcos, who is also the chauffer for Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the general's rebellious teen daughter, spends most of his day traveling through Mexico City, often with the young vixen chirping on her cell phone in the backseat of his car. Unbeknownst to the general, his daughter is a prostitute in a high-end Mexico City brothel. Though he seems tortured by the death of the general's infant, Marcos still openly ogles the young and nubile Ana. Ana seems to take pity on the portly Marcos and may even give him a free sampling of the goods for his years of dedicated service.
When Battle in Heaven was shown at Cannes last year, many expected Reygadas to up the ante on his promising, but slight, Japon with an ambitious tour-de-force. That didn't happen. Battle in Heaven was screened to unenthused audiences and hobbled through the rest of its obligatory festival dates with little fanfare. In retrospect, the movie's unsubstantiated expectations provided the worst environment for this deliberately paced, uncomfortably erotic, and opaque film to be screened. While Battle in Heaven is just about the polar opposite of a crowd pleaser, it does have merits that can hopefully be appreciated by a more forgiving DVD audience.
I should be clear that one's enjoyment of the movie will depend greatly on attention span and tolerance for unerotic sexual situations. Like the early films of David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Pretty Girls) and later films of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World), the plot of Battle in Heaven is almost incidental. As in those films, this movie abandons traditional storytelling and instead uses strong visuals and heavy symbolism to convey emotional states of minds. This results in long stretches of little or no dialogue, and lengthy digressions from whatever semblance of plot there is. Make no mistake: this film, which is both foreign and aspires to be art, will be difficult viewing for conventional viewers. Ditto for narcoleptics.
Compounding this difficulty is the movie's graphic sexual content. Now I know some guys think this will be no problem for them. But all prospective viewers of Battle in Heaven should know, despite the comely, half-naked women on the DVD cover, this film is not titillating. The nudity is predominantly male, full frontal, and involves unforgiving lighting. The sex is cold, graphic, and always involves either one or two unappealing individuals. Now, that said, though the sex scenes are scarily realistic, they are also, like the movie as a whole, simply captivating.
I do not know if Reygadas began his career as a still photographer, but he has framed his movie so beautifully that nearly every shot seems like it could be hanging in a gallery. It is his talent for finding beauty in mundane locales, such as a subway station, or a prostitute's bedroom, that redeems his movie. While watching, there were several moments when I thought the movie might be improved by turning off the sound and simply admiring the creative cinematography and brilliant use of natural lighting. Though one might think coitus easily lends itself to film, it has been recorded countless times, and from every conceivable angle, and is more often than not simply boring. That is why Raygadas's biggest achievement may be making this trite act seem fresh and interesting again, at least from an artistic standpoint.
Ultimately, this is a challenging film to judge because, despite a meandering plot and undeveloped characters, Battle in Heaven has unique assets that made me glad I watched it. Also, while I'm sure many viewers will express nothing but contempt for this film (with good cause), I get the impression that Reygadas created the movie he intended. Any perceived failings of Battle in Heaven have nothing to do with contrived situations or ill-advised compromises. Reygadas has successfully filmed his intriguing, and disturbing, vision and the simple fact is some people are going to be turned off. Personally, while I found the movie tedious, I think it is worthwhile viewing simply for the artistry on display in the film's superb shot selection. So with hesitation I am recommending Battle in Heaven, but I strongly advice you not to watch it while eating.
Tartan Video, which deals largely with Asian cinema, has done a fine job transferring this Mexican import to DVD. Reygadas's beautiful mosaic of Mexican landscapes is presented with a clear picture and sharp attention to detail. In addition, Battle in Heaven makes great use of natural sound, and watching the movie becomes almost a proxy for actually visiting Mexico City. The only sustentative bonus feature on the DVD is a lengthy (30 minute) interview with Reygadas and the actress Anapola Mushkadiz. Though both seem somewhat uncomfortable talking at length about the film's graphic sex scenes, Reygadas provides interesting background to the movie's creation and some intriguing nuggets of his filmmaking philosophy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Say what you will about Reygadas, but he clearly hasn't compromised his vision. Certainly, he knew this film would alienate mainstream audiences, but he made it anyway. For someone with Reygadas's talent, this was a brave move. This was also what independent film is about and, regardless of your opinion of the movie, Reygadas should be respected for creating Battle in Heaven. Now, let's see if, third time out, he gives us something we can all respect a bit more unreservedly.
Battle in Heaven is a beautiful film that should be seen (and not necessarily heard).
I'm expecting big things from you, Carlos Reygadas, so don't let me down. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Interview with director Carlos Reygadas and actress Anapola Mushkadiz
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