black straps on either a pink or heather gray body
As Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura was in 1960, Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven was the enfant terrible at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. With any luck, Heaven, like L’Avventura, will one day make its mark in the film canon as the singular film experience it is. But what was the source of the controversy? To put it bluntly, graphic sex scenes involving obese, “ugly” people. Those are also accompanied by an obtuse narrative and often enigmatic digressions. For many, this will be an artsploitation film, to others, just boring, but to those willing to open themselves up to the unfamiliar, it just might be sublime.
The movie’s opening, already infamous, presents a nude young woman, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) performing fellatio on a heavyset middle-aged man, Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), in a blank room. As she does so, she sheds tears, but probably not for the reason most viewers might think. Marcos is a chauffeur (as Hernandez was in real life for Reygadas’ father) to a Mexican military general. Ana is the general’s nubile daughter who dallies in prostitution on the side. Only Marcos, who drives her to her brothel, knows of her secret. Marcos also has a secret. He and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) have kidnapped a child for ransom, but the child has unexpectedly died. Where this might end the second act in most movies, this is where Battle in Heaven begins.
The rest of the story explores what happens when Marcos blurts out his secret to Ana after she bestows upon him what might be seen as pity sex. The narrative fails on a literal level, but it’s meant to be taken as an allegory for spiritual redemption while tangentially relating the social conditions and class differences of contemporary Mexico. In a notable early scene, Reygadas shows Marcos’ wife selling clocks in the subway, a soul-deadening job.
Reygadas’ filmic brother-in-arms is Bruno Dumont (La Vie de Jesus, L’ Humanite). They both use non-professional actors, display a coolly distant tone and share a cinematic interest in combining earthiness with spirituality. It is these qualities that provide the key to reading this film so often proclaimed opaque. While Battle in Heaven is open to interpretation, the most obvious one is that the apparently gratuitous and explicit sex is a metaphor for spiritual connection. Ana, whose singular physical beauty stands out, is a Christ figure who tries to redeem Marcos by asking him to turn himself in. Marcos, who with his wife, like Adam and Eve, have committed an egregious sin, stand in for humanity. Their far-from-perfect bodies contrast with Ana’s “divine” form.
Reygadas’ treatment of Mushkadiz’s body as a container of both sensuality and spirituality is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s similarly memorable attempt with Myriem Roussel in Hail Mary. Reygadas also incorporates a playful use of sound and/or silence for which Godard is well known – notably blasting Bach in a scene at a gas station and erasing the ringing of church bells.
While sex scenes have a history of controversy from In the Realm of the Senses to Irreversible, what is interesting here is that much of the clamor comes from Reygadas using the bodies of regular people instead of supermodels. Ironically, he has made the ordinary shocking.