Battle In Heaven Review

Making a strong impression with his controversial 2002 debut, the astonishing and challenging Japón, there was no doubt that however Reygadas would follow it, it was unlikely to see him move – as so many of his fellow Mexican filmmakers had done – towards a more commercial Hollywood style of filmmaking. In other words, there was no likelihood of Reygadas making a Hellboy or finding himself lined up for the next Harry Potter film. True to form, Battle In Heaven, with explicit and transgressive sex scenes evident from the outset, shocked and appalled many critics when it opened in Cannes in 2005, but was equally praised for its powerful imagery and its uncompromising stance.

Like “the man” in Japón, Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) is another of Reygadas’ inexpressive characters who carries the terrible burden of their sins around with them in silent torment. This time however, the isolation of a small Mexican mountain village is exchanged for the no less alienating location of Mexico City, and this time we also have some indication of the nature of Marcos’ sins. Marcos is a driver working for a rich boss, chauffeuring for his daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), who works as a prostitute, and sometimes supplies sexual favours for Marcos. During one of their encounters, Marcos confesses the terrible crime that has been troubling him. He and his wife have kidnapped a baby and it has died while in captivity. His wife wants the two of them to join the pilgrims parading through the streets to the Mexico City Basilica and Ana advises him to turn himself over to the police, but Marcos hopes to find redemption in the body of Ana.

As with Japón, Reygadas expresses the internal torment of his character principally though their environment, but also with an overpowering use of music – Tavener, Bach and pounding dance music here. Here we see Mexico City as the battleground for the crisis that is going on in Marcos’ head – the conflict between the rich and the poor and the contrast between young men in the underground wearing devil masks and the religious processions marching through the streets. Most controversially however, Reygadas seeks to reconcile the differences between incompatible elements and the irreconcilable conflicts in Marcos’ head through sex scenes of a very unconventional and unerotic nature, showing the heavily overweight Marcos having sex with the young beautiful Ana and with his large, round wife – like Japón - showing his characters attempting to receive some transcendent, spiritual redemption or escape from themselves through the act of sex.

Such scenes are obviously problematic and likely to be considered controversial, but there is no reason why they should be. Reygadas rightly shows real people in a realistic context, displaying themselves unselfconsciously as they are. In this respect there has been an awful lot of nonsense talked about how Reygadas employs and takes advantage of inexperienced, non-professional people, rather than actors, and somehow coerces them into taking part in extreme scenes that are a betrayal of their dignity. It is actually the exact opposite of this – Reygadas does not regard sex are being the preserve of glamorous Hollywood actors on the silver screen and he employs real people because he wants to explore real people in their own environment, and not just film actors performing. At the same time however, there is nothing remotely documentary-like or naturalistic about Reygadas’ filming methods, and these scenes are heightened with 360º camera movements, climatically scored to Tavener and Bach and even juxtaposed with cutaways to religious pictures, hanging on the walls.

Reygadas is a bold and original filmmaker, and fascinating though his approach is in Battle In Heaven, I think it is a little bit overwrought - the director taking pains to carefully construct the film around symmetrical highly symbolic and controversial opening and closing sequences, that too obviously labour over Mexico City’s external conflicts as a representation of Marcos’ internal dilemma. Reygadas throws everything up there on the screen – all the horror and beauty of Mexico City and its people in their religious observance and their sinful ways – and some if it sticks to Marcos and some of it doesn’t. You can make the connections and consider their relevance if you like or choose not too, but there is a sense that the film is overburdened with such imagery. Unlike Japón, where the man’s existential burden remained unspecified and unarticulated except in the most oblique of pans across the mountainous countryside, here Marco’s sin is clearly spelt out and his attempts to find redemption only inspire incomprehension, revulsion and horror. Like it or not however, Battle In Heaven’ powerful and shocking imagery will not however leave any viewer indifferent.

Battle In Heaven is released in the UK by Tartan. The disc is in PAL format and is not region coded.

It’s hard to find any serious complaint with the picture quality on the Tartan DVD release of Battle In Heaven. The film is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1, which is doubtless not the original ratio, but close enough to 1.85:1 for it not to matter that much. The transfer retains the deliberate blue/grey tones the director wished to use to emphasise that the real battle is internal rather than in the colourful streets of Mexico City. The image has excellent clarity, conveying these tones well, and there is no evidence of marks or damage on the print and few, if any, signs of compression or artefact problems. In one or two scenes I thought I detected some judder or blurring, but I think this may have been more to do with the actual camera movements during some of the more complex 360º pans. Some edge-enhancement or haloing may be visible on some systems. I didn’t notice this as an issue on a 32” television, but it seemed to show up more on a computer monitor. An example of this may be visible in the screenshot below.

A great deal of attention has evidently gone into the soundtrack and sound design of the film and it is good to see that Tartan have presented a full range of audio options for the soundtrack – Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 – although perhaps more than is strictly necessary. Either the Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 mixes will be sufficient to carry the power of the film’s musical passages and ambient effects.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and they are optional.

Tartan have included a long, exclusive Interview with Carlos Reygadas and Anapola Mushkadiz (33:28), which is conducted entirely in English. The interview covers all the relevant areas from the initial genesis of the film, to how it was cast and filmed, obviously getting into detail on how and why the more controversial scenes were prepared. Other than the usual Tartan Trailer Reel, the Original Trailer (1:36) is the only other extra feature relevant to the film.

Make no mistake, Battle In Heaven is not pleasant viewing. It’s repugnant and degrading – but I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It strips filmmaking of a great deal of its narrative artifice, while being at the same time highly stylised in its attempt to lay bare the human soul, where human desires and actions are of the basest kind, in order to reveal a spiritual dimension or at least strive to find if it exists. Personally, I think Reygadas makes his points too heavily this time around and the film - controversial imagery notwithstanding - is relatively unchallenging and doesn’t leave as much room for interpretation as his previous film, Japón. But it certainly goes places that few other filmmakers – Bruno Dumont and Claire Denis excepted – are prepared to explore and there is consequently much to admire in Reygadas’ uncompromising and individualistic approach to his films. With Hamish McAlpine an executive producer on the film, you would expect Tartan to bring this controversial film to DVD in its full-length, uncut format, with a strong presentation and that seems largely seems to be the case here.

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