Battle in Heaven is a sweaty foray under the sheets of an ugly, morally corrupt and class-ridden society
Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo)
2005 (Spanish, English subtitles), Tartan Video
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
LATAMROB rating: **
EXTREMELY confusing and even repugnant is the Mexico portrayed by Reygadas in this, nonetheless, cinematically stylish film.
The plot, loosely held together by edited takes, tells the tale of Marcos, a man of the lowest echelons of society, and his wife who kidnap an acquaintance’s baby for ransom but for whom things turn sour when the child dies.
Between his daily job of participating at the hoisting and lowering of the Mexican national flag in the celebrated Zocalo, Marcos works as a chauffeur for Ana, a general’s daughter. It is unclear who this general is, but this is an allegory suggesting someone in the very highest ranks of the Mexican army.
In her spare time, Ana dedicates herself to prostitution. Marcos has a crush for Ana, and Ana relates to him as a confidante. In a moment of weakness Marcos confesses his crime to Ana, who then orders him to do the right thing and surrender to the police.
Such is the connection between mistress and servant that she redeems the pot-bellied Marcos by having sex with him. But even sex with a member of the beautiful class does not edge Marcos’ ugly life of moral corruption or his low class closer to heaven.
Marcos wife, a reflection of him, is somehow tougher and shows minimal remorse for their despicable action, yet she mellows when she faces the possibility of losing her man to Ana. Despite her ruthlessness, Marcos’ wife later tries to seek God’s pardon by joining a pilgrimage to the temple of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. Marcos, however, decides to take a detour to exorcise his demons – and kills Ana. He then joins the frenzied masses at the temple.
It is difficult to get to grips with what Reygadas tries to achieve with this film because of the apparent absence of a script. Like many Latin American filmmakers, he has resorted to the use of non-actors, chums he has known for some time, but his achievement in cinema is due mainly to his employment of real sex scenes.
In Japón, there was a sex scene involving an elderly lady. In Batalla en el Cielo Marcos displays impressingly dark lovehandles whilst keeping a monolithic expression, his ugliness is contrasted with the tattooed and well-maintained, pale, delicate figure of Ana. But the cherry on the cake is the real sex scene between Marcos and his wife – sumo restling for veterans.
Reygadas and Anapola Mushkadiz, the art designer who plays Ana, coincide in their hatred of the clinical – even plastic – quality of sex scenes in mainstream Hollywood films. It is, indeed, the crude portrayal of sex that has made Reygadas films so controversial, hated by many, and appreciated by some.
Reygadas describes this film as an existentialist drama and explains that it was the result of a mental image he retained after watching a fat, powerful looking man, crossing a square and holding a candle in a torrential downpour in a provincial Mexican town (echoing Nostalghia by Andrei Tarkovsy?).
Yes, there is pride in a big Mexican campesino facing the rain and, yes, sex is not normally performed by characters enhanced to be perfect in every way. But there is also a wide gulf between Tarkovsy and Reygadas, whose works have nowhere near the same poetic value as his Russian colleague. If anything, you could say that having the nerve to create such films is what has gained Reygadas recognition
Georgina Jiménez is a Mexican freelance journalist