CAPSULE: BATTLE IN HEAVEN (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Reygadas

FEATURING: Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz, Bertha Ruiz

PLOT: A chauffeur falls in love with his boss’ daughter, who is secretly a prostitute, and confesses a terrible secret to her.

Still from Battle in Heaven (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Battle in Heaven really only gets “weird” in its final act; up until then, it qualifies more as “insufferable.”

COMMENTS: Battle in Heaven begins with a paunchy nude middle aged man standing against a blank background as an equally naked young woman kneels before him, her blonde dreadlocks bobbing ever so slightly. The camera pans teasingly, blocking the action for as long as possible as it slowly pans around to reveal the “money” shot.

Daring? Sure, especially for a Mexican film of the period. But like this shot, Battle in Heaven lacks any sort of discernible moral or purpose. The movie is technically accomplished, but as empty as the featureless room where the contextless oral sex takes place. The movie is not about sex—although there is a good deal of sex in it—or about the relationship between the two mismatched characters in the opening (which never becomes convincing). The best one might be able to say about it is that it’s about a man, Marcos, and his working class ennui—although the tragedy that follows is driven not so much by existential angst or sociopolitical oppression as by a series of perversely stupid choices.

Battle in Heaven is one of those self-important “quiet” films with lots of lingering shots of expressionless faces, where evoking boredom is seen as a brand of authenticity. There are long, drawn-out scenes of people we don’t particularly know or care about driving through Mexico City, talking on cell phones to characters we’ll never meet about nothing in particular. One can only imagine the director starting each scene by calling out “lights, camera, inaction!” And while that would normally be cause to assign a rating, the truth is that the technical qualities of Battle are too advanced for us to slam the film. Although most people in the audience will not care, the camerawork is excellent, featuring one 360 pan that abandons a lovemaking couple and travels outside their apartment window to survey the local neighborhood in a long unbroken shot before peeking back in to find them spent. There is no real purpose behind the virtuoso shot, but it will be appreciated by some. Even better is a scene where Marcos stops at a gas station which is blasting Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 over its loudspeakers (!); as the driver wanders towards the street, that music is overlaid with, then yields to, the sound of a parade where the marchers sing a patriotic anthem. That crossfade is the aural equivalent of the camera’s 360 pan. These moments remind us that Carlos Reygadas has real filmmaking talent—it’s just that this script has no direction.

As far as weirdness goes, there’s not much, up until Marcos starts masturbating while watching a futbol match (for some reason, Reygadas spares us the explicit details, although this seems to be exactly the kind of taboo he generally gets keyed up to commit to film). The protagonist then wanders off onto a hilltop, performs an unspeakable act, and joins a band of Catholic pilgrims in repentance. Some guys ring the cathedral bell that makes no sound, and then a bunch of soldiers take down and fold up a Mexican flag that’s as large as a house to signal the end of the film.

If watching a middle-aged man’s penis detumesce in real time is what you look for in a movie, then Battle in Heaven has got you covered. If you’re looking for any of the other things we normally seek out in movies—a story, an emotional connection, thought-provoking developments—then you may find it more of a hellish experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The pic’s strangeness becomes its strength, as it is aesthetically pleasing and then some, even if not completely satisfying in a rational narrative sense.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by “Christoper.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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