Marcos (Marcos Hernández) is the middle-aged chauffeur of Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the daughter of a well-known Mexican general. Marcos is the only member of Ana’s household who is aware that she leads a double life, amusing herself by working in a high-end brothel. He also has a secret of his own: he and his wife (Berta Ruiz) have kidnapped a baby for ransom and the infant has died in their custody. When he confesses this to Ana, their shared secrets unite them, body and soul. As the police draw closer, Ana urges Marcos to turn himself in. But in the end, he seeks redemption from a higher power…
eyelights: its languid pace. its hypnotic visual quality.
eyesores: its mild incrutability.
“This is a fantasy”
‘Batalia en el ciero’ is a Mexican motion picture about a man struggling with his conscience in the aftermath of a botched kidnapping. The long-time driver of a General, Marcus is the keeper of a secret that he shares with Ana, the General’s entitled daughter: she works in a brothel. But he decides to trade his secret for hers – and then their lives unravel.
“Slow” is the perfect adjective to describe ‘Batalia en el ciero’. That is not to say that it is uninteresting, however. From a purely psychological standpoint, the characters are fascinating, if slightly inscrutable: we never really understand their motivations. This makes sense since we only get a glimpse at a brief period in their lives; their back-story is lost in time.
I truly appreciate this approach: in a barrage of Hollywood drivel that hammers exposition into the audience’s heads as though we were idiots, I relish a touch of realism. Writer-director Carlos Reygadas is so committed to realism that he tends to employ non-actors for his films, and clearly shot some of this footage live, on the streets, using real passersby to fill the screen.
Of course, when I said “slow” it was not intended to be insulting or denigrating. Nothing like that. What I meant is that, in ‘Batalla en el cielo’, it feels as though Reygadas self-indulgently decided to immerse us in the scenery, showing us his country in all sorts of colours; from the locales to the people, we are treated to long, drawn-out shots of all the sights.
In some ways it felt as though I was watching National Geographic: the camera didn’t seem to have any love for its subjects, with Reygadas choosing instead to shoot everything dispassionately. There’s also a lot of silence, as Marcus reflects and observes the action around him, himself disconnected from all emotions (ex: the opening shot of him receiving fellatio, all blank faced).
In fact, even the sex, which could be mildly graphic (there was even a warning about it on the box), lacked passion; it was mostly shot as matter-of-factly as possible. The only exceptions were a kiss that Ana gives Marcus towards the end, which was both tender and sexy, and the way that Reygadas shot the bookending fellatio sequence, giving it a slightly artistic quality.
But that’s about it: otherwise, there is not a drop of passion on the screen.
Contextually, it makes sense, however: Marcus is shell-shocked by what’s transpired. He and his spouse have no idea what to do now that the child they’d kidnapped (from an acquaintance, no less) has died. Everything is in a haze, his mind is utterly clouded. He even blanks out completely while driving Ana around; as he’s trying to grasp with the karmic consequences, time stretches.
This all takes place over what appears to be some national festivities, as crowds fill the streets for what amounts to a pilgrimage to the Basilica. It’s unclear to me exactly what was taking place, but I suspect that it would be abundantly clear to Mexicans. Whatever it was, there was a lot of military presence on the streets, and a large number of people were involved in the pilgrimage itself.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the religious aspect of the film. Marcus was obviously suffering from some sort of spiritual death, and having a mental breakdown. It made sense that he would decide to save his soul by going on a pilgrimage. But what was Reygadas trying to say about this process, or even about Marcus? Was there a message he wanted to convey, or was this merely a journey?
The title, “Battle in Heaven” seems to suggest that there is more to it than mere storytelling, but I can’t quite put my finger on what the battle consists of, where the battlefield is, and what represents heaven in this picture. Similarly, I got confused with the bookends, because I started to wonder if it was meant to be taking place in Heaven, what with its light blue background.
Who knows. I simply could not wrap my mind around that bit.
What I found interesting was how the film was shot with a yellow tint that made me think of late ’70s or early ’80s motion pictures. I’m not sure why Reygadas chose this quality, but it didn’t look like it was from 2005. He also chose to immerse the picture in music, often classical, blasting through the scene. I enjoyed the drama that it contributed to the scenes, filling the room.
Although I really enjoyed ‘Batalla en el cielo’, I’m not sure that it is something I would recommend to many people. It’s definitely something that would be appreciated mostly by art-house or foreign film aficionados. It’s not a film snob thing, it’s just that it works in subtleties that not everyone savours. Many people would find it sluggish, perhaps even boring, but I found it captivating.
Date of viewing: July 14, 2014