With its interest in ritual as a dehumanizing/transcendent force, its unaffected performances, and its methodical, meditative widescreen cinematography, Battle in Heaven naturally elicits comparisons to the work of Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. And at times, director Carlos Reygadas’s follow-up to 2002’s Jápon seems a tad too convinced that it belongs in such rarified company, an air of borderline-pretentious import coloring its carefully orchestrated ‘scope arrangements and camera pans away from characters and toward its sprawling Mexico City landscape (and the expansive soil and sky that sandwich it). Yet as with his astonishingly primal, potent debut, Reygadas here again assuredly walks the fine line between self-importance and self-assuredness, his film a portrait of individual and national crises that, at nearly every turn, seeks greater truth through startling provocation – the most obvious, and notorious, example of which is the graphic sex scenes (replete with close-ups of wilting erections and razor-burned pubic regions) that punctuate his ruminative narrative.
Beginning and ending with an overweight man named Marcos (Marcos Hernández) receiving a blowjob from a pretty young girl named Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), Battle in Heaven utilizes its unattractive, explicit sexual encounters not simply for gratuitous titillation but, rather, as mirrors designed to reflect the story’s underlying social/political/religious tensions. Those strains constantly bubble beneath the surface of the nominal plot, which involves Marcos and his portly wife’s (Bertha Ruiz) struggles to deal with the death of a baby they had kidnapped and planned to ransom. In this desperate stab at financial gain, as in both an extended shot of a BMW driver interacting with his servants, and in the socio-economically disparate relationship between Marcos (who works at an army base helping to raise and lower the national flag, and as a general’s chauffeur) and Ana (the general’s daughter, who secretly works as a whore), Reygadas subtly touches upon his tale’s larger concerns regarding the inequality – and consequent moral decay – plaguing his home country.
Such dilemmas take on a spiritual dimension courtesy of Reygadas’ Christian symbolism, with Marcos’ efforts to cope with his guilt, resentment and disaffection presented as a search for salvation. That this wayward protagonist remains, up until the shocking (and somewhat forced and artificial) finale, a relatively cold and impenetrable figure hampers Battle in Heaven’s desire to cast his plight as representative of the nation’s apparently dire state of affairs. Yet Reygadas’ formal acuity helps gloss over some of his film’s more pressing thematic shortcomings. And in his head-on depiction of the way communal rites (flag-raising, Catholic pilgrimages, soccer games) help foster alienation rather than unity, as well as in his fierce exploration of issues of intimacy and inequality via Marcos’ diametrically dissimilar sexual trysts with Ana and his wife (respectively impersonal on the one hand and affectionate on the other), Reygadas proves that rare filmmaker interested in tackling both the personal and the political through expressly confrontational means.