Battle in Heaven

Battle in HeavenBattle in Heaven opens with a deliberate, calculated provocation. It seems to be a very explicit fantasy sequence involving a young and rather beautiful woman performing an iconic sex act on an obviously less attractive older man. To be blunt, he’s fat, and blank-faced. The camera spins around the actors, coming to rest in the man’s place so we see this woman from his point of view — the audience is placed in the position of being on the receiving end of this sexual act, an act which seems to be not of love, exactly, but of kindness.

The scene of fellatio, reprised at the film’s end, is dissimilar

to the rest of the movie in tone and visual design. It’s almost

abstract in its conception — I remember nothing in the way of

set dressing and a blank, vaguely luminous, background — and

I’m not sure what exactly it’s meant to represent. Perhaps

it’s a scene that takes place in the Heaven of the film’s

title. There is a scene later in the film where this same man has

sex with a wife who is built quite thickly, and the camera lingers

for long moments on the rounded swells of her flesh. It becomes clear

that bodies are a great visual motif for Reygadas.

Reygadas leaves a clear auteurist stamp, but at the same time scenes

like this one have a documentary feel, owing mainly to his decision

to cast the film with non-professional actors. (The man’s name

is Marcos, and he’s played by a man named Marcos Hernandez. The

young woman is named Ana, and she’s played by a woman named Anapola

Mushkadiz.) More to the point, these scenes cast the audience in the

role of reluctant voyeur; we live in a world where Scarlett Johannson’s

pale ass smiles happily at us from the frontispiece of a mainstream

magazine, but the screen presence of a large, naked Mexican woman with

purple spider veins is a spectacle to which we’ve not yet grown

accustomed. Watching her, I found myself wondering how she felt about

baring her body on screen; how her co-actor felt about pretending to

mount her from behind; what the conversations must have been like in

which Reygadas convinced them both to participate.

The film’s explicitness is crucial to its meaning. By dwelling

on both types of bodies — the trim and conventionally beautiful

versus the flabby and utterly ordinary — Reygadas emphasizes

both physical closeness and economic distance. He seems less interested

in bodies in the erotic sense than in the way that they can be indicators

of class — in the sense that body shapes are influenced by economics,

because the folks without the money to dine well end up feasting on

junk instead, which sticks to their figures.

If I’m writing about this film in clinical terms, it’s

because I don’t know quite what to make of it. The plot is oddly

sensationalistic, given Reygadas’ resolutely imperturbable approach.

Marcos and his wife, who sells clocks and cakes from a blanket spread

on the floor of a subway station, are in trouble. Desperate for money,

they have kidnapped a baby for ransom — and the infant has died

before the mother, an acquaintance, was able to raise the cash. Marcos

knows Ana because he chauffers for her father, a general. She’s

well-off but moonlights in a brothel, and because he knows her secret,

he gets a little action on the side. Things eventually go very badly,

and Marcos ends up setting off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the

Virgen de Guadalupe, where he seeks some kind of inner peace.

The Virgen de Guadalupe is celebrated in Mexico as a sort of national

symbol, and the film is bookended not just by the spectacle of Ana’s

blow jobs, but by images of the unfurling and collapse of a huge Mexican

flag. As personal as Marcos’ story seems to be, it suggests that

Reygadas has national identity on his mind. But I keep coming back

to Marcos, who seems to be out of his league just existing in this

world.

Reygadas conceives another sex scene audaciously, opening on a medium

shot of Ana on top of Marcos, screwing him gamely but joylessly. The

camera goes out the window and pans around 360 degrees to take in the

entirety of the Mexico City neighborhood around that bedroom before

coming back to the place where it began, an echo of the circling camera

move that opened the film. (The focus then shifts to Marcos’ dick

going flaccid.) Once again, the scene emphasizes the differences between

these two as much as their casual intimacy (the movie’s poster

is a frame blow-up from this scene, and Marcos has been carefully Photoshopped

out of it). And there’s an important scene later in the film

showing the schlubby Marcos sitting alone, totally alien, in Ana’s

tastefully appointed apartments. It suggests the chasm that gapes between

them. And then he explodes.

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