Carlos Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven" An Illness of Society By Klaus Eder
by Klaus Eder
Carlos Reygadas portrays men longing for death. Their delusion is a metaphor for a suffering that stems directly and is also inclusive in a larger sense from an illness of society.
He unfolded this in Japón (2002), his acclaimed debut. He continues this now, with Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo). Japón lead to a lonely and remote mountainous landscape – a film of beautiful (yet melancholic) images. Battle in Heaven leads to Mexico City, a gray landscape of subways and decayed apartments – a film of repulsive and ugly images.
There are films that tell a story with a background. Carlos Reygadas tells a background with a story. Mexico City appears as cold and uninhabitable. In a small scene, a car leaves a villa, the owner disputes with his maidservant and blocks the street recklessly as if there were no other cars wishing to pass. Again and again, the camera witnesses the all-morning procedure of soldiers coming out of the presidential palace and hoisting the Mexican flag on the Sokalo, the central place of the city. This ritual conjures a greatness and splendor that the country, according to Reygadas, has lost long ago.
Under these powerful and depressing images of Mexico, as a place where life has ended in a deadlock, the story almost disappears. It’s the story of Marcos, the car driver of an important personality (a general); together with his wife, he has kidnapped a baby to blackmail a ransom, though the baby has died. This information is only conveyed in one conversation that only lasts a few seconds. It’s not used for action; it does not play a role; it only attempts to explain and deepens the despair of Marcos, the protagonist.
The film opens with a close-up of a male face, circles around his plump body, moves down to a young girl who kneels before him and satisfies him, circles again around, approaches her eyes, and from her eyes slowly we see two tears drop. This is a scene of high artifice, precisely constructed (as the whole film is). It shows Marcos and Ana, the general’s daughter. It’s a scene of a numbing coldness. There’s no emotion; there’s not even the pleasure of sex. It’s an empty ritual that shows notions like love or pleasure, notions that even life has disappeared from Reygadas’ universe. At the very end of the film, Reygadas repeats this scene. Only now Marcos smiles, Ana smiles, they don’t use a prophylactic (as in the opening scene), he says “I love you,” and she answers “I love you.” It’s a utopian scene, a dream, a vision of how life and love could be – a vision that never can become reality, in the Mexico of our days. On the contrary: Marcos understands that he’ll never be happy, for sure not with Ana. Instead of losing her, he prefers to kill her – in a totally unexpected scene that draws him nearer, even inevitably near to his own death.
Decline of a Man
The film shows the decline of a man. He has no way out, not in this society. Reygadas avoids “explaining” this character. There’s no psychology in the movie. Sometimes Marcos appears almost as a wounded animal that does not fight anymore to survive, as someone who has just come to terms with his fate.
No doubt that Marcos stands for a decline in society. He serves as an amazingly constructed metaphor. In Battle of Heaven, Reygadas uses a metaphorical language, to a much higher extent than in Japón. For example, the film is full of symbols of Mexican Catholicism; one scene even uses the ritual of penance directly. But these symbols lose their significance – there’s no comfort from religion, because there’s no comfort in society.
We see the enormous clapper of a bell, but the sound is not to be heard. Scenes like this show that Reygadas has learnt a lot, about narration and about how to create his dark vision of the world, from Luis Buñuel and from later directors of this tradition such as Arturo Ripstein. This includes the well thought-out use of music and sound.
First Japón, and now Battle in Heaven, make Carlos Reygadas one of the biggest talents in new Latin American cinema.