Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (Batalia en el cielo) is a battle for dreams, waged within dreams. While most of the film focuses on quotidian detail, a concept reinforced by the notorious realism of the sex scenes, it also reveals internal states. The tragedy that erupts by film’s end is only comprehensible if we look beyond obvious rationalizations, which every scene is designed to subvert.
The film begins and ends in a dream, with a graphic blowjob. The slow-panning camera closes in on a fat, middle-aged man being serviced by a young woman, accompanied by a lush string composition on the soundtrack. Two uncensored human bodies are on display, and yet their arrangement is also obviously contrived.
From technique to plot to character, the film is built on such dissonances. The divide between the man, Marcos (Marcos Hernández), and the woman, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), is more than just physical. We gradually learn that he is a working-class driver for a general in Mexico City and she is the elite general’s wayward daughter, moonlighting in the city as a prostitute. A brief segment of muttered dialogue reveals that Marcos and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) are guilty of a crime: an off-camera kidnapping of a child who is now dead. This mysterious transgression haunts the entire film, referenced by an occasional, low-level horror-movie thrum. While we are free to wonder why Ana is a prostitute and what drove Marcos to kidnapping, the film is resolutely focused on the present, locating the origin of the characters’ guilt in their relationship with society rather than as a presumed consequence of their history.
The film explores how our perceptions are shaped by convention. Its careful use of Marcos’ point of view, formal tracking shots, and intense close-ups challenges our default responses to these techniques. When the camera takes Marcos’ perspective, our sense of dislocation is only increased. During a scene where he is driving Ana home, most of the sound is muted, expressing both Marcos’ profound alienation and his obsession with Ana, whose gravelly alto comes in loud and clear. But the shots linger for so long that rather than identify with Marcos, we interpret him at a remove. As the camera pulls back to show his flaccid, unresponsive features, it becomes clear that we are not seeing as he sees, but watching him see.
The subjects of Battle in Heaven‘s many close-ups and slow pans range from simply unattractive (broken-down urban locales, Marcos’ broken down body) to shocking (Marcos’ waning erection), and so lead us to question our instinctive responses. The scenery and the non-professional actors are shot entirely in available light, such that their presence is never reduced to the symbolic. That the real can never be negated is a point made most poignantly during a scene where several men struggle to sound a giant bell next to a raging waterfall; regardless of their effort, all we hear is the waterfall. This brief moment is an example of the dialogue that develops over the course of the film, between the formalism and obvious craft of the direction and the rawness of the subject.
Reygadas abstracts, expands, and universalizes this conflict to apply to political and religious themes. A dramatic soccer match, charged with nationalist hyperbole, is revealed not only to be televised, but also the object of Marcos’ viewing as he masturbates. An image of Christ’s wounds implies an answer to some great question, but the murder it prefigures reveals nothing. In every case, the symbolic rituals which constitute society imprison and pervert experience, leading inevitably to disappointment. Marcos’ guilt over his crime cannot be absolved by turning himself in to authorities or by going on a religious pilgrimage, two alternatives that at first seem separate. He prostrates himself before a church that is sponsored by the state; the chanting priests who lead him hooded and on his knees to beg forgiveness also lead him to the police, to a courtyard where the beautiful but empty pageants of church and state become indistinguishable from one another.
In its lack of resolution, Battle in Heaven suggests we must interpret the world for ourselves, self-consciously. The mannered nature of Reygadas’ camerawork, abstract blocking, and the painstaking symmetry of his visual metaphors amounts to an affirmation of form, even as he denounces the traditional structures of religion and government. Though the film shows “everything,” its stylistic distancing effects complicate our understanding. According to Reygadas, we must become conscious of and responsible for how we see defines what we see.