Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo) was one of the most controversial films to screen in Cannes this year, not just for its explicit sex scenes, but also because of Reygadas’ radically purified, almost spiritual style. The film – superficially, at any rate – is about a chauffeur called Marcos who has committed a terrible crime before the film starts, has sex with his employer’s daughter, kills her and dies. Nick Roddick spoke to Reygadas a couple of days after the film received a five-minute standing ovation at its official Competition screening.
Tell me a bit about your time in Cannes: how has that been? Is it different from when you were here with Japón?
No: the degree changes but the essence remains the same. You have to talk about your film when you wish just doing it and showing it would be enough. I am one of those people who think that you shouldn’t speak at all about it.
The opening and the closing shots are isolated in space and time. Why did you chose to film them that way?
Because I think these sequences are probably closer to the realm of unconsciousness and mystery. That realm is part of life but the connection with it is not very clear. I mean, it’s easier to connect the fact that you have breakfast in the morning and then you go to work afterwards than to connect that you dream one night about fire in the sky and that you go to work the next day. Somehow, those two sequences acknowledge a certain mystery, but the connection with real life – naturalistic life – is not so easy to establish.
Does the mystery that you’re talking about here belong in the film rather than in people’s lives?
No, it is the mystery of existence and consciousness: the mystery of us being here and the mystery of death. In the film, I wanted to pay tribute to the fact that there is this mystery and we have to acknowledge it and be a little humble about it.
Is that why you chose not to show the act that triggers Marcos’ battle with his conscience: the kidnapping of the baby?
Yes, because it is not important. The important thing is that it happened. It’s like if I tell you someone I loved died a long time ago and I dreamed about him, and then you ask me to show you some photos of him dead. It is not a film about guilt, because guilt comes out of reason, not information. Marcos doesn’t seem to think that he’s done something bad. Somehow, like in nature, when bad is done or evil is done, it’s manifest eventually. I think this is what happens here.
So would I be wrong to use the word ‘redemption’? Is that what he’s looking for?
Yes, it would be wrong, I think. I would say, if you want, it is real redemption, which is different from the idea we usually have of the word ‘redemption’. Let me explain: I think Marcos is a man who understands that – understands not rationally, but feels really that it won’t be outer systems or mechanisms through which you can find the reasons for existence or being or consciousness. The State or Religion, contrary to most of the people in the film, are not important things for him. He despises them. He says ‘Oh, these pilgrims are like a bunch of sheep’. But then, in the end, when all the conflict goes so wrong and he does something terrible – taking someone else’s life – he has reached that point where he can not go anywhere or do anything with himself. Then he does what everybody is meant to do. Instead of redemption, it’s a descent. At that moment, he loses his confidence. It’s not that he’s redeeming himself. I think he realises that, after what he has done, the only decent thing he could have is death. Spending the rest of the time in jail would just be a way of redeeming himself in front of a hypocritical society. After all, the fact that we need to be punished to be redeemed is part of the hypocritical, superficial mechanism. I think he really knows somehow that the only thing he can do is die, and he goes and looks for death and he is granted that gift.
OK, let’s get to the question that everyone is talking about: the sex scenes. They’re very much in keeping with the rest of the film – I’m not saying that they’re exploitative in any sense, they’re part of life – but they are very ‘in your face’.
I just think that sex is mysterious and a very powerful drive in our lives. It epitomises intimacy, but sometimes it epitomises a sickness of non-communication. So these sequences are sexual, but maybe only on the surface. The opening sequence reveals that much more: it’s a man looking into a camera, his face, and then we open up and we see the mass of his body and then we see a woman interacting with him. Then we come again into her and we go to the other extreme of the pendulum and we see this woman looking into the camera and she’s crying – all this with movement and sound. This creates this mystery of existence. Who are we? Are we alone or together? What does sex mean for us in our lives? Is it really a way of connecting with each other? There are so many questions. and it has nothing to do with pornography.
Was it difficult for the film’s performers, who are non-actors, to perform sexually for the camera?
No, very easy. They just got naked and did what I said and that was it.
No embarrassment on anybody’s part?
Just a little bit, but only for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, they were walking naked all around the studio for the whole day. It’s all such a simple taboo.