Monday, November 06, 2006

Battle in Heaven (2006)

Quiet desperation abound in Carlos Reygadas's uber-art ode to/jeremiad for the lower-class unexamined life. Thing is, he almost makes it work; against my own trepidation (and with my philistine impulses hurling themselves against the ramparts of my reason), I rather liked the first two acts of this. The film is suffused with pompous gravitas in service to nothing in particular, but it seems appropriate given both the deliberateness of Reygadas's mise-en-scene and the atmosphere of nothing-muchness that he's taken pains to set up. And the mise-en-scene really is quite striking -- Reygadas has a sharp eye for detail and a marvelous sense of color contrast (like Ana's screaming red robe contrasted against the cool blue walls of the brothel), and his placements (both of camera and of actors within the camera's field of vision) are unerring. Furthermore, the editing on this film by Reygadas and three others is potent enough that every shot feels just as long as it has to be and every cut is exactly in the place that it needs to be for maximum impact. There's a story of sorts, involving chauffeur Marcos and his attempts to escape his increasingly unsatisfying home life (to which a horrific secret is tied) by dallying with Ana, daughter of a government official and whore; the film, though, is at its strongest when it's dealing with images and implications -- thematic material rather than concrete. To drive home the sense of desperation and aloneness, Reygadas makes parades a running trope, the idea being that you can be in a sea of people without ever connecting to any of them beyond a shared belief ("They're all sheep"); he then contrasts this and the desultory domestic life of Marcos with the increasing involvement of him and Ana. It culminates in a striking consummation scene wherein the camera starts on the rutting couple then circles around to show the rest of the apartment building, unconcerned as ever; the post-orgasmic chill is, if anything, even more fascinating, with Reygadas starting by concentrating on his characters' genitals, then shifting focus to their touching hands (from crudity to tenderness!). If you're willing to overlook the inadequate acting from Marcos Hernandez (as Marcos) and Berta Ruiz (as his wife), there's plenty to please in the first two-thirds of Battle in Heaven. (This forgiveness is easier than it sounds, since Anapola Mushkadiz, who plays Ana, has a natural carnal electricity about her that charges every scene she's in, thus negating the ponderousness of Hernandez.)

But then Carlos blows it by resorting to the traditional Violent Unexpected Ending that has, by this time, become a cliche in modern Slow-Moving Important International Cinema. The VUE, from where I stand, hasn't shown itself to me with such calculated desperation before; it literally feels like Reygadas ran out of ideas and grabbed for the wrap-up of least resistance. As much as I hated Sangre, I submit that its ending might have worked wonderfully had it been attached to the tail end of this film instead; in the context of Battle in Heaven, the idea of accidental states of grace might have seemed natural rather than confused and arbitrary, and Escalante's ending certainly would have fit Reygadas's film better than the cynically gruesome climax that Heaven possesses. I see where the ending loops back onto the notion of surrounded isolation, both figuratively and literally (there's another parade to contend with), but it's still cheap. I don't think this is quite the oppressive Slab o' Art that its detractors have branded it; for one thing, Reygadas has a sense of humor that can swing either towards the caustic, as evinced in the sequence with the marriage party, or the sly, as in the bit at the gas station where stereotypically overreaching classical music on the soundtrack turns out to be a part of the diegetic world. I do wish, though, that it hadn't swung so clumsily for some weird notion of transcendence when it was doing fine with the notions it already had.

Grade: C+


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