Battle in Heaven Review
There are films that are intrinsically linked to the ethos of the city where they are made. Battle in Heaven is an example of such films. Feeding off the jittery, unstable energy of the megalopolis Mexico City, Carlos Reygadas's follow-up to his well-received debut Japon, is an ambitious project, with some daring moments of ecstatic realism and other not-so-successful ideas that are deflated by Reygadas's slips on a knee-jerk attraction to confrontation with the audience, which can be easily misinterpreted as 'shock value'.
The film revolves around Marcos, a chauffer who kidnaps a baby with the help of his wife, a street-vendor. Both are overweight, laconic types with an air of impenetrability about them. The baby dies under their hostage, but they decide to just carry on with their lives (we never get to see the baby or find out what they do with the body). Then the daughter of his boss enters the fray as the catalyst of the events that will ignite Marcos apotheotic and tragic end against the background of Mexican Catholicism.
Reygadas succeeds several times with some of his formal experiments (the use of a roaming camera in a post-coital sequence; the use of sound in the underground station at the beginning of the film) and he shot the film with a lens that gives the film almost a Cinemascope amplitude and the look of an aquarium. It's visually striking at points.
Conversely, the glitches of the film seem to derive from Reygadas's use of non-professional actors in a film that seems to require a certain amount of skills since it is, by and large, a very stylised and mannered piece. You get the impression Reygadas thought up some of the less inspired moments in the film as subversive gestures, but they have an opposite effect and invest the film with a ‘cinema of appeal’ varnish that undermines his intentions. It’s easy to see what he's trying to get at: challenge prejudices about beauty and class differences. The ideas are good, but the execution is, at points, misconceived.
Still, you can't be too harsh on a new director trying, and to a certain extent, succeeding, in creating a non-genre film that evades formulas and pushing the boundaries in terms of what cinema can do. Battle in Heaven is no pleasure ride, but it is stimulating fodder, despite its flaws.