If spending hours and hours at the Wisconsin Film Festival last week wasn't enought, last night I watched Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo)
, a film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I'd read some very positive comments about it when it played in Chicago a few months ago and so I was eager to check it out for myself.Battle in Heaven
begins with a close-up of a man's scruffy face. His blank expression and the absence of any sound betrays nothing. The camera slowly moves down over his bare chest and plump belly. Soon the long locks of a woman's hair move into frame and we can see that she is performing oral sex. We stay locked in this shot for a brief time before the camera gracefully moves in and around to the right. It closes in on the area below the man's waist. Suddenly the scene cuts and our view is from behind the man. Again, the camera begins moving in and around until we see the beautiful young woman slowly fellating the man's penis. Her eyes are shut and the scene is almost solemn. Moving in further, the woman turns her face towards the camera until it fills the screen. Opening her eyes, she stares at us for several seconds. Then black.
Aside from the graphic oral sex, this opening prepares us for the rest of the film with its slow camera movement and lingering shots. We are also introduced to the main characters – Marcos and Ana. We next see Marcos with his also plump wife propped up against a bright blue wall in a sterile, noisy environ. An irritating beep drones in the background as chatting people walk by. They have a small area staked out to sell snacks and nick-knacks in a corridor of a subway stop. Both of their faces are blank as they follow the commuters walking by them. The dialogue is sparse but we learn that a woman named Viky has lost her baby. Soon Marcos must leave for the airport.
Marcos meets Ana there. She is from a wealthy family and he is her chauffeur. Despite (because of?) her family's standing, Ana works as a prostitute at a brothel. Marcos takes her there and she offers to set him up with one of the ladies. "Fatso can't get it up," one of the women says, "He is asking for you," meaning Ana. She goes upstairs to find Marcos removing the condom and getting dressed. Sitting down next to him and asks what's wrong. He tells her that he and his wife kidnapped a baby earlier in the day and that it died. Ana lays back on the bed and the camera glides over her flat belly up to her face and pauses on it. The camera loves Ana or her body, at least and this kind of shot is repeated later in the film when she and Marcos are walking down the sidewalk. A man in a wheelchair being pushed by a nurse unexpectedly appears in front of them and we get a shot from the man's point of view. The camera shows us Ana's belly once again and it slowly moves up to her face again. In these shots, it's as if the camera is caressing her.
Contrast this with how Marcos, man grappling with the pangs of guilt and interminably lost in thought, is treated. There are several scenes which resemble the end of The Passenger
. Take the one after Ana and Marcos have sex upstairs in an anonymous apartment. We voyeuristically look at them through a window and then the camera turns towards the urban landscape of Mexico City. It does a full 360 and returns to the characters still in the same position they were in when the shot began. Just as with Marcos' thoughts, the camera wanders and he gets lost from view. But, just as he is found again as the camera movement brings him back into the frame, so too does his mind return.
Blood is shed near the end of the film but I felt that Marcos finally found himself. It wasn't a happy reclamation of his mind and heart, but at least his tragedy came to an end. The very end of the film is a mirror of how it began but with one crucial difference – he smiles.