Mexican director Carlos Reygadas pulls out all the stops in his challenging, often shocking second feature “Battle in Heaven,” which is both intensely exciting for its cinematic inventions and terribly uninvolving on emotional and dramatic levels. The magic that enveloped Reygadas’ knockout first film “Japon” fails to materialize here, particularly in the final scenes. While advance word about the film’s explicit sexual content will stir a certain amount of prurient interest, the elegant, highly aesthetic lensing keeps the eroticism on ice, a fact that will seriously disappoint anyone buying a ticket for that reason. Box office prospects are likely to be limited to hard-core arthouses.
That said, there are some remarkable moments of filmmaking here that take “Japon’s” bold experimentation a step further. The story opens starkly on the naked body of a flabby middle-aged man, on whom a beautiful young woman is graphically performing fellatio.
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Since they’re isolated against a neutral background, the scene has a surreal, abstract quality, which is not put into any possible narrative context until a matching shot ends the film. Even then, what is going on requires a stretch of the imagination, but that’s true for virtually the entire film.
The unprepossessing man turns out to be film’s principal character. Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) is a driver for the family of an army general. He and his wife (Berta Ruiz), who sells cakes and alarm clocks in a Mexico City underpass, have kidnapped a baby, but the child accidentally died that morning.
The mother of the child, Vicky (Rosalinda Ramirez), seems to be a family friend or relative, and lives in poverty like they do. The child’s death shakes Marcos to the core, and the film is about his inner struggle to come to terms with his conscience.
Over and over again, audience expectations about what the characters are like, what they feel and what they will do are systematically overturned. When Marcos drives to the airport to pick up the general’s daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), it’s startling to see that she’s the same woman from the fellatio scene.
Far from being a victim, she’s a rich girl who gets her kicks working as a belle de jour in an upscale brothel. She has known Marcos since she was a child, and seeing him in the dumps, she offers to set him up with another girl. He is too devastated to go through with it, however.
So, she graciously offers to have sex with him again herself. Once more, the scene is graphic in depicting full frontal nudity and a male erection, yet, strangely, it is not erotic. As the camera reverently concentrates on the folds of their bodies and texture of their skin, the attention moves away from the sexual to the human.
This scene rhymes with a similarly explicit coupling between Marcos and his obese wife, but here the human dimension of sex is even clearer. The tenderness and affection they feel for each other is moving.
So is their realization that the consequences of the muddled kidnapping are at hand. When Marcos confesses he has told Ana about what happened, his wife calls him an idiot and says that the girl will have to be silenced. Marcos wants to give himself up instead.
Sinking into a catatonic depression, Marcos stumbles through a country outing (incredibly, the kidnapped baby’s weeping mother is part of the group) and is enveloped in a dense white fog. This is the point at which he most closely approaches the suicidal hero of “Japon.” It is a crucial turning point for the narrative, which moves into its concluding scenes during a mass religious pilgrimage with the promise of some kind of resolution.
But this is the point when Marcos’ existential journey essentially ends. The story has one more major twist to come, but it is too ambiguous in its meaning to provide a satisfying conclusion to such a pregnant plot.
The three main actors are superbly cast in these difficult parts. Though he shows very little expression, Hernandez’s humanity shines through every scene. As his wife, Ruiz defeats all preconceptions with her sheer physical presence, while Mushkadiz unselfconsciously exhibits her superb pierced and tattooed body
Much of the film’s soulful beauty stems from the cinematography by Diego Martinez Vignatti, used with enormous care and parsimony. Often the camera is so close that only the sound mix reveals the context of the shot.
Music, too, plays a key role in Reygadas’ vision of man on earth, using pumped-up excerpts from John Taverner and Bach to show a hidden grandeur behind the most mundane images.