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February 17, 2006

Battle in Heaven, 2005

battle_heaven.gifProvocative, explicit, horrifying, uncompromising, yet unmistakably humanist, Battle in Heaven is the film that Bruno Dumont should have made after L'Humanité. Instead, it is Carlos Reygadas who rekindles the spirit of Robert Bresson in his exposition on ritualism as a path to transcendence. For the film's protagonist, Marcos (Marcos Hernández), mundane ritual has come to define his entire existence. Working as a security guard at a military fort where his duties include being a part of the ceremonial cadre who raise and lower the national flag at dawn and dusk, the theme of repetitive ritual is also reflected in his wife's (Bertha Ruiz) sideline, hawking clocks at a subway station. Even his employment as a personal driver to a high ranking general involves a certain measure of predictability, often chauffeuring the general's daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) to her boyfriend's apartment or a clandestine brothel operating in an upscale neighborhood where she works as a part-time call girl. Intrinsic in Reygadas' dedramatized, incisive, and occasionally surreal imagery of Mexico's complex physical and metaphoric landscape - and in particular, in the dynamics of Marcos and Ana's unusual relationship - is the metamorphosis of sexuality and spirituality as modes of intimate and personal ritual. In Reygadas' bracing portrait of Mexico's profoundly fractured and polarized - and perhaps irredeemable - society, human connection occurs not through the opacity of the soul but through the characters' disembodied rituals that serve as communion for unarticulated desire. By correlating this seemingly fated and inescapable sense of irredeemability with Marcos' search for redemption following his complicity in perpetrating a grievous and tragic crime, his inner turmoil serves as a metaphor, not only for the casting of a fallen angel alluded in the title, but invokes the allegorical, epic struggle for the very soul of all lost, dispirited, and broken humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 17, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Film Comment Selects


Great review. This is a honor for Reygadas to be compared to Bresson!
I thought the whitewashed scenes (brothel) could be imagined, as suggested by the slightly different cinematography. And there is no correlation made in the rest of the film to prove Ana actually did this, outside of Marcos' subjective mind.
What do you think?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Feb 18, 2006 11:17 PM | Permalink

Agreed, when Ana said that he could have anyone in the brothel but not her, that was it; he gets dressed, he goes away. She didn't seem touched enough by his confession to want to be intimate with him. It was the same with the fog scene in the farm where he keeps walking and stumbles into an arrangement of monument crosses; that was definitely more metaphoric than realistic.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 19, 2006 9:47 AM | Permalink

I love this line: "In Reygadas' bracing portrait of Mexico's profoundly fractured and polarized--and perhaps irredeemable--society, human connection occurs not through the opacity of the soul but through the characters' disembodied rituals that serve as communion for unarticulated desire." I must revise my own post on the film to include that.

The suspicion that much of what we see in the film is the subjective workings of Marcos' mind is intriguing. I wish I could have posed that suspicion to Reygadas when he was here in residency at San Francisco's Center for the Arts.

Posted by: Maya on Mar 14, 2006 12:33 PM | Permalink

The white-washing effect on Ana and Marcos' intimate encounters is interesting because it's not filmed the same way when they're just driving around. So in a sense, I can see that Reygadas may have been trying to illustrate a kind of symbolic "heaven" (in the controversial sequence) that structurally encapsulates (embraces?) Marcos' "hell" that we see in the rest of the film.

I must admit, I was a bit disappointed when Reygadas didn't accompany the film for that one screening at FCS, especially since he was already in the country for that residency. This just seemed like an especially juicy film to discuss.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 14, 2006 3:53 PM | Permalink

Hi Acquarello,

sorry for dropping in quite late regarding this film comment but I only saw the film this past weekend. I was thinking along the lines of what Harry & you mentioned regarding the imagined sequences. For me, the slight difference in the first first and last scenes in the film were a key. Both are similar regarding the act but in the first scene Marcos is wearing glasses and in the last he is not. And he only smiles in the last scene. So does that mean that final scene is in heaven away from the earthly troubles that haunt Marcos?
While the first scene might be something he imagined during his daily routine life, when he does have time to ponder on things?

But what confuses matters slightly for me is the 360 degree camera shot during the sexual encounter between Ana and Marcos. The camera is outside the window looking into the room and is just starting to move to the left when suddenly Ana looks towards the window. I am still not sure if this was intended or she just happened to look toward the camera? The camera then goes on a spin, showing us the neighbourhood, before returning back to the room where Ana has finished her act and is resting on Marcos. The manner of this shot seemed to be too real, not something imagined. But when the camera starts moving up towards the roof and looking down upon Marcos and Ana, well that appears to have a dreamy feel.

Overall, I am still leaning towards that Marcos imagined all this with Ana, with the exception that the final scene takes places in heaven.

Having recently seen Silent Light as well, I find it interesting that film also starts and ends with a similar scene, although with a slight difference. Silent Light ends in a sequence in reverse order to the film's start (night to sunrise, sunrise to night) while Battle in Heaven has the same scene, minus the glasses. Which raises the possibility of the first scene being imagined in earth vs the final scene as being real in heaven?

Posted by: Sachin on Jul 21, 2008 5:41 PM | Permalink

Hi Sachin, thanks for your observations. Hmm...I'm going to have to take another look at that bookending sequence. I agree with you that the sexual encounter definitely seemed compartmentalized and "out of body", as in a dream, but I had thought that the opening and closing scenes were the same. I didn't pick up on the variations between the two scenes, so I always figured that they were the manifestation of the same dream. But you're right, the absence of the glasses does seem to suggest a "perfect" state (heaven) versus an idealized one (dream), which plays with the idea of reality.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Jul 21, 2008 10:15 PM | Permalink

Hey Acquarello,

have you seen the Mexican film Sangre? I had seen this film back in the 2005 London Film festival and was struck by a few key scenes. I was surprized to learn recently that Reygadas was one of the producers of this film and now thinking back, there is a sex scene which is similar to the one in Battle in Heaven. Also Sangre forms a nice pair with Battle in Heaven in terms of the kidnapping motif.

Both films were released in 2005, so I am wondering how much influence Reygadas had on Sangre.

If you have seen the film, I would like to hear your thoughts and if you have not, then I think you should give it a viewing.

Posted by: Sachin on Aug 25, 2008 1:48 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the tip, Sachin. I haven't seen Sangre, but the parallels you bring up sound intriguing. From the comments on the IMDb page, it does sound like a kind of companion project between Escalante and Reygadas.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Aug 25, 2008 9:57 PM | Permalink

It is almost three years since I saw the film and I had only recalled certain scenes. But after reading some of the imdb comments and reviews, I remember a lot more now :) (yes words triggering images buried in the psyche). I think even the filming style of Sangre will compliment Battle in Heaven. For example, when something happened in Battle in Heaven, the camera looked straight at Marcos's expressionless face. I do remember in Sangre we see the expressionless face of the main character but in a few critical moments, I remember the camera looked at him from the back, or even the side but not looking directly at his face. Little details but relevant..

I think I will also make an effort to track this film down and do a proper comparison :)

Posted by: Sachin on Aug 26, 2008 5:31 PM | Permalink

Hi Sachin, sorry for the delayed response, crazy work schedule. Doesn't Battle in Heaven open to a shot of the back of Marcos's head, before rotating towards the front? It does sound as though they were playing with variations on a theme. Anyway, no luck in Facets, but it looks as though there is an MK2 DVD that's either about to come out on 9/4 or is being reissued in France on that date. I'm confused about the subtitling though, the Fnac page says French, but Amazon.fr says French under the Technical Details, then English further down, but on an apparently older release back in 2006. Huh?

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Aug 27, 2008 11:05 PM | Permalink

Now I can't remember about that opening shot of the back of Marcos' head in Battle in Heaven. I am sure there are static shots of the main character's face in Sangre as well. This is what happens when I try to piece together two films, seen 3 years apart, only from memory. But good thing is there are some shots which are engrained in my mind. I am tempted to tell them to you, but I want to wait. My words won't have the same effect as you seeing them...

The DVD subtitle thing is a bit confusing alright. There isn't much dialogue in the film from what I remember (I am doubting my memory) but I think the subtitles are still required as there are some conversations which are important at the start. I am quite surprized to see that Sangre never got a proper release here even though it had won an unofficial award Cannes in 2006. Film distribution in North America sometimes follows a complicated algorithm, not all film festival winners get a guaranteed release, and some films get a wide release even though they should not :)

I came across these lines in an old Senses of Cinema article:

Le Monde supplement focused this year on David Cronenberg and his A History of Violence, and on two Mexican films, Carlos Reygadas' Batalla en el Cielo (Battle in Heaven), presented in the official competition, and Sangre (Blood), the debut film by Reygadas' assistant Amat Escalante, screening in Un Certain Regard.

Indeed Amat Escalante was an assistant director on Battle in Heaven. I think the light bulb has finally lit up on my head, albeit a bit delayed.

Posted by: Sachin on Aug 28, 2008 11:20 AM | Permalink

err..typo on my part. It won an unofficial award in Cannes in 2005..

Posted by: Sachin on Aug 28, 2008 11:22 AM | Permalink

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