(Premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival in Competition for the Palme D’or)
Written and directed by Carlos Reygadas, Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven) tells the story of a working class man whose life is unraveling after a failed kidnapping plot. Despondent, he meets the boss’ daughter whom he had known since she was a child as she helps him deal with his own issues along with wife who is suffering from illness. Starring Marcos Hernandez, Anapola Mushkadiz, and Berta Ruiz. Batalla en el cielo is an eerie yet mesmerizing film from Carlos Reygadas.
After the failure of a kidnapping plot gone wrong, a working-class named Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) is haunted by the actions he took to get a ransom and its failure. With his wife Berta (Berta Ruiz) trying to make a living selling clocks and cakes at a subway, Marcos leaves to pick up his boss’ daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz). On her way to pick her up, his glasses get shattered by the crowded people at the subway as he eventually meets her as he drives her home. Yet, his state of mind over what’s happened leads him to drive Ana to the boutique that she works at where she’s a prostitute. Marcos sees the place where he couldn’t do anything with another client as he wants Ana as he tells her what he’s done.
After telling Berta what he told Ana, Berta reveals that he must make sure that Ana doesn’t say anything to the police. When he visits Ana, she isn’t happy about his visit as she takes him to her place where they would have sex. Marcos would find his sexual liaison with Ana as a way to cope with his feelings while he ponders on what he should do. Even as a pilgrimage for the Lady of Guadalupe is happening where Marcos, Berta, their son Irving, and some friends go to the countryside where Marcos reveals his plans to Berta. Following a trek through the countryside, Marcos visits Ana again where the meeting leads to an emotional and mental breakdown.
What happens to a working-class man whose life isn’t going well with a wife who is ill while resorting to do something for money and fails? Well, that’s what Carlos Reygadas is asking in his sophomore feature about a man experiencing a spiritual and emotional crisis following a failed kidnapping plot for money. Yet, the film is a character study of sorts as Reygadas follows Marcos for three days in his life following the failed kidnapping. Yet, the film opens with a fantasy of sequence of Marcos getting a blow-job from Ana as it plays to Marcos’ idea of heaven.
Given the circumstances he is dealing with, Marcos is forced to deal with the realities he lives with as he starts off each day as a security guard watching soldiers hoist the large Mexican flag that starts off the day. It’s part of his routine while his relationship with Berta, a loving one, is complicated as she is trying to keep things together while wanting to make sure that her family is safe. While she knows what they did is wrong, she is trying to figure out what to do though she’s unaware of Marcos’ deteriorating state of mind. Then there’s Ana, a young woman who Marcos knew since she was a kid as he is also her father’s driver. He also knows that she’s a prostitute as he confides in her to keep the secret which would lead to complications with his own marriage to Berta.
Reygadas script also allows the film to give a bit of social commentary as Marcos would always see the things rich people would do that includes a reckless moment where two young spoiled boys would urinate into the trunk of a car. Even at one point, he would have similar feelings to seeing people of his class status in their own activities or the way he reacts towards the pilgrimage that is happening. There is a lot happening though the script is very loose since there is very little plot that is happening throughout.
Reygadas’ direction is definitely intriguing to watch in not just the way he presents Mexico City in all of beauty but also urban areas. It’s also the way he presents sex in the film which is very explicit but also in ways that casual audiences will have a hard time watching. Since he’s using non-professional actors, particularly those who are overweight or don’t have the traditional body that people want to see having sex. It creates an element of shock to see two fat people having sex and quite explicitly while the idea of a beautiful young woman in Ana having sex with Marcos is also shocking. Even as there’s a bit of penetration shown along with close-ups of their respective genitals.
Throughout part of Reygadas’ direction, there is a chance for the director to show Mexico as it is to display Marcos’ sense of isolation throughout the film. While at times, it comes off as a bit pretentious during scenes where something is happening with the main character. In other places, it allows the audience to figure what Marcos is watching including a great sequence of the pilgrimage as the camera is at the center of everything. Despite a few flaws in its story and the sense of discomfort it brings in places, Reygadas creates something that is unique and daring with this film.
Cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti does an excellent job with the film’s camera work in creating a look that is very realistic. Notably in creating mesmerizing shots to display the wondrous world of Mexico City along with Mexican countryside that is truly some of the best shots of the film. Even as Vignatti does a lot of the camera operating with tracking shots and hand-held cameras to create some dazzling camera work for the film. In the editing, Reygadas, along with editors Adoracion G. Elipe, Benjamin Mirguet, and Nicolas Schmerkin, does a pretty good job with the editing in creating a leisured pace throughout the entirety of the film along with some jump-cuts for some of the driving scenes in the film.
Art directors Elsa Ruiz and Daniela Schneider do a nice job with the look of the film from the upper-class world that Ana lives in along with her spacious apartment to the claustrophobic world that Marcos and his family live in. Sound designers Martin Hernandez and Sergio Diaz do a phenomenal job with the sound work to create an atmosphere for the film for many scenes at the pilgrimage or inside the subway as it’s the film’s real technical highlight. The film’s score by John Tavener is wonderful as there isn’t a lot of music played in the film. Tavener’s score appears in the opening and closing moments of the film to capture the sense of loss that’s permeated in the film while the rest of the soundtrack features traditional Mexican music, classical, and Mexican hip-hop.
The casting is another of the film’s highlights as Reygadas employs a lot of non-professional or non-actors to fill in the roles to give it a realistic film. Among the standouts in small roles include Alejandro Mayar as a police inspector and David Bornstein as Ana’s boyfriend. Berta Ruiz is very good as Marcos’ wife Berta who tries to deal with what had just happened along with Marcos’ troubled state of mind. Anapola Mushkadiz is superb as Ana, the young woman whom Marcos tell what happens as she tries to help by basically having sex with him while guiding him about what to do. Finally, there’s Marcos Hernandez who is great as Marcos. Hernandez’s performance is another of the film’s highlight as he brings a restraint to his performance as a man troubled by his actions and lost in his surroundings hoping for redemption.
Batalla en el cielo is a stellar yet gritty film from Carlos Reygadas. Fans of the 2000s new wave of Mexican Cinema will see this as an intriguing film that follows a man’s descent from grace as he’s caught in a very complicated world. While it may not have the visual splendor of his fellow Mexican filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron or Guillermo del Toro. Reygadas creates a film that is definitely engaging about class and sex in ways that is very confrontational without being overbearing. In the end, Batalla en el cielo is an intriguing film from Carlos Reygadas.
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