With Battle In Heaven, it is conceivable that Carlos Reygadas had something to say. If that is true, I have no idea what it is, but I cannot help but be drawn in by his unique approach. Indeed, I do not think I have ever walked away from a film with so many questions that lack subjects, impressed by visuals but unsure if they were all for show or if they were the secret to the film.
Battle In Heaven begins with an overweight, unattractive man receiving a blow job from a much younger woman. The camera starts on the man’s face and slowly pans down, behind the woman’s head, and then swings around until we reach a close-up of her eyes. We quickly learn that the man, Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), has known the girl, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), for quite some time, and we suspect that he has gone to her as a form of escape. Marcos kidnapped a baby, and through some kind of accident, the baby ended up dead. Ana is the only person who Marcos can talk to about this, and she is also his only form of escaping it.
Battle In Heaven has the components of a study of loneliness and guilt. The actors are nonprofessional, and Marcos Hernandez in particular plays his part in a way that would make Robert Bresson proud. Devoid of emotion, limited in reaction, and always looking like he’s somewhere between eternal boredom and a breakdown, Hernandez’s performance is the most convincing reason to believe that Marcos feels guilty or lonely. The other actors have a harder time balancing restraint with woodenness, and they are prone to momentary outbursts that are far from distracting but also are not convincing. Acting aside, Reygadas’ conveys a degree of Marcos’ worry in his camera movement, which is almost always moving, as if someone nearby is going to call him out on kidnapping.
There is an exception to the moving camera at a scene near the beginning. Marcos is driving Ana to her “boutique.” She is on the phone, always talking about something we can’t quite catch onto, and the camera is looking out the windshield. There are numerous jump cuts, and the road ahead and the cars nearby instantly change. It is certainly designed after the opening scene in Breathless, and it captures the paradox of being lonely despite having so many friends beautifully. In comparing this scene with any other in Battle In Heaven, in which the camera is in motion, often a choreographed set of sweeps, Reygadas reveals himself as a director with a deep understanding of using the camera to display a character’s emotions.
Unfortunately, neither his plot nor his characters can keep up, and the religious turn at the end of the film is so hard to penetrate that one might think based on Reygadas’ cinematic style that he is mocking an engaged viewer’s tendency to look for meaning. It is doubtful that this is exactly what Reygadas intends, but he offers no opinions about his provocative shots and visual motifs. The pilgrimage and the cross that Marcos encounters have little to do with traditional Christian notions of forgiveness or redemption. Reygadas juxtaposes a passive blow job with an unattractive emotional one, and then completes the bookend with a third such scene, but anything that a contrast in style could mean is completely lost in a nonexistent understanding of Marcos’ motivation.
What Reygadas has created here is a unique, intelligently stylistic film posing as a character study, but without much of a character and with even less of a study. It is a film that one could likely discuss endlessly, but watching it is as frustrating as it is intriguing. There are a great number of shots we cannot help but react to and think about, but there are not too many rewards in doing so.