Originally posted by Howard Schumann on 5/29/06 10:55 am
BATTLE IN HEAVEN (Battala en el Cielo)
Directed by Carlos Reygadas (2005)
Set in Mexico City, Carlos Reygadas' provocative Battle in Heaven reflects the contradictions of the teeming megalopolis of 20 million, a beautiful city of stately old buildings and tree-lined suburbs, yet one in which 3,000 kidnappings take place each year with most perpetrators getting away with their crimes. In the film, a Catholic and a seemingly good man commits criminally perverse acts, a wealthy young woman engages in prostitution for fun, and a loving couple of limited means kidnap a baby for ransom from an equally poor family. Like French director Bruno Dumont, Reygadas' cinema is predominantly physical and there is little dialogue, narrative thrust, or explanation of the contradictions. Portrayed by non-professional actors, the main characters, like Bressonian models, show little emotion, and the film often feels like a study of flawed humanity shot by an observer from another planet.
Marco (Marcos Hernandez) has been a chauffeur for a General of the Army for fifteen years. His unnamed wife (Bertha Ruiz) hawks alarm clocks and pastry in a metro station. Both are middle-aged, unattractive, and overweight, the antithesis of Hollywood glamour. The film is framed by sexual acts, and explicitly realistic Dumont-like sex is sprinkled throughout, apparently designed to tweak our level of comfort rather than turn us on. As part of his job, Marcos chauffeurs the elite General's rebellious young daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) around town and he is the only one who knows about her secret life, turning tricks in a brothel. To clear the air and perhaps to receive some of her favors, Marcos admits to her that he and his wife kidnapped the baby of a friend and that the baby died accidentally.
Transcending racial taboos and class differences, Ana agrees to have sex with her driver but tells him to turn himself in to the police. Persuaded by his wife, however, he decides to wait until after the procession of Catholics to the shrine of the Lady of Guadeloupe. In Battle in Heaven, the brilliant cinematography of Diego Martinez Vignatti conveys powerful images of beauty juxtaposed with scenes of ugliness. Marcos, deep in concentration while driving on a beautiful day, is cursed and spat upon in a scene of road rage, the music of Bach's elegant Concerto in D minor blares at a tawdry gas station, and a scene of touching farewell is suddenly marred by an unspeakable crime.
Unique and disturbing, Battle in Heaven is full of shock and awe, but it is the awe that remains after the final credits. Amoral and violent, unfulfilled by sex, Marcos seeks redemption. In abject sin, hooded, crawling on his knees to the Basilica, he joins a group of marchers he once called "a flock of sheep" and, in the moment where pure light and pure darkness merge, we discover once again that grace is everywhere.