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Thread: Battle in Heaven (Mexico)

  1. #1
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    Battle in Heaven (Mexico)

    BATTLE IN HEAVEN (Battala en el Cielo)

    Directed by Carlos Reygadas (2005)

    Set in Mexico City, Carlos Reygadas' provocative Battle in Heaven reflects the contradictions of the teeming megalopolis of 20 million, a beautiful city of stately old buildings and tree-lined suburbs, yet one in which 3,000 kidnappings take place each year with most perpetrators getting away with their crimes. In the film, a Catholic and a seemingly good man commits criminally perverse acts, a wealthy young woman engages in prostitution for fun, and a loving couple of limited means kidnap a baby for ransom from an equally poor family. Like French director Bruno Dumont, Reygadas' cinema is predominantly physical and there is little dialogue, narrative thrust, or explanation of the contradictions. Portrayed by non-professional actors, the main characters, like Bressonian models, show little emotion, and the film often feels like a study of flawed humanity shot by an observer from another planet.

    Marco (Marcos Hernandez) has been a chauffeur for a General of the Army for fifteen years. His unnamed wife (Bertha Ruiz) hawks alarm clocks and pastry in a metro station. Both are middle-aged, unattractive, and overweight, the antithesis of Hollywood glamour. The film is framed by sexual acts, and explicitly realistic Dumont-like sex is sprinkled throughout, apparently designed to tweak our level of comfort rather than turn us on. As part of his job, Marcos chauffeurs the elite General's rebellious young daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) around town and he is the only one who knows about her secret life, turning tricks in a brothel. To clear the air and perhaps to receive some of her favors, Marcos admits to her that he and his wife kidnapped the baby of a friend and that the baby died accidentally.

    Transcending racial taboos and class differences, Ana agrees to have sex with her driver but tells him to turn himself in to the police. Persuaded by his wife, however, he decides to wait until after the procession of Catholics to the shrine of the Lady of Guadeloupe. In Battle in Heaven, the brilliant cinematography of Diego Martinez Vignatti conveys powerful images of beauty juxtaposed with scenes of ugliness. Marcos, deep in concentration while driving on a beautiful day, is cursed and spat upon in a scene of road rage, the music of Bach's elegant Concerto in D minor blares at a tawdry gas station, and a scene of touching farewell is suddenly marred by an unspeakable crime.

    Unique and disturbing, Battle in Heaven is full of shock and awe, but it is the awe that remains after the final credits. Amoral and violent, unfulfilled by sex, Marcos seeks redemption. In abject sin, hooded, crawling on his knees to the Basilica, he joins a group of marchers he once called "a flock of sheep" and, in the moment where pure light and pure darkness merge, we discover once again that grace is everywhere.

    GRADE: A-
    "They must find it hard, those who have taken authority as truth, rather than truth as authority" Gerald Massey

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    Immediately after watching Batalla en el Cielo, I felt compelled to watch it again. I brewed some coffee and I did just that, fascinated by the artistry and courage of Carlos Reygadas (Japon). He is the "enfant terrible" of Mexican cinema. He aims to make the type of cinema described in the first chapter of Paul Schrader's book "Transcendental Cinema", he decides to abandon law and diplomacy to become a filmmaker after watching his father's Tarkovsky collection (35 mm prints!), he instructs his actors to perform like Bressonian models, he has somehow inherited Antonioni's sense of landscape and moves the camera like a brush wielded by a German painter of the Romantic period... but Reygadas is Mexican to the core and every frame of his films reflect that. So much so that the settings of key scenes are almost folkloric: protagonist Marcos learns that the kidnapped baby has died while observing the traditional raising of a giant Mexican flag in El Zocalo, the vast square that is the birthplace of the country. The pilgrimage to the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the monument to the "mother of all Mexicans", figures prominently in two scenes. At first Marcos mocks the participants but, at the paradoxical ending, the penitent sinner has joined them in search of redemption and forgiveness. Once here, Reygadas abandons his precocious rigor and indulges his youth: he cuts from the pilgrims to a couple of senoritas licking dripping ice cream cones with almost carnal delight.

    Batalla en el Cielo, a title inspired by the Biblical tale that concludes with the banishment from heaven of the Devil and his followers, is intimately aware of the social, cultural and racial divisions characteristic of Mexican society. It shatters them by having the rich, young, beautiful woman of European extraction initiate sex with the working-class, middle-aged, unattractive man of indigenous descent employed as her family's chauffeur. Ana rocks back and forth on top of Marcos inside a room with blank walls as the camera slowly pans away and out the window, thus effectively placing their activity within a social context: we witness two men installing a satellite dish, listen to a conversation between unseen people and a dripping faucet, watch pedestrians pass by and a motorcycle speed away on the street below. When the camera returns to "beauty and the beast", they are lying down and the camera closes up on their intertwined hands. The long sequence is reminiscent of the final scene in Antonioni's The Passenger, which doesn't follow coitus but the mysterious death of the character played by Jack Nicholson. Reygadas incorporates the teachings of the world's masters of the medium, and appropriates Old World cultural objects (a Bach concerto, for instance, as noted by Howard Schumann), then applies them to a specifically Mexican milieu. The relentless shattering of taboos is so central to Batalla en el Cielo that it's not surprising he couldn't get financing in Mexico. Reygadas had to resort to European backing to get the film made, even though his debut feature was hailed worldwide. Perhaps the scene that would most offend Mexicans, especially men, involves Marcos sitting on his couch masturbating while watching a soccer game_a wish-fullfilling fantasy match in which the Pumas implausibly win the national championship. I can imagine Reygadas thinking "if Almodovar can show Antonio Banderas jerking off while watching a bullfight, why couldn't I..." Unlike the other transgressive scenes, the camera regards Marcos from behind and never swings around to take a closer look.

    What riles the auteur are charges that he seems to highlight the grotesque in scenes such as the one in which Marcos and his equally corpulent wife/accomplice are shown having sex. Reygadas expresses disbelief at such a line of questioning and states he finds beauty in the "curvaceous folds of brown skin" on which his camera lingers. During interviews, Mr. Reygadas reminds me of 60s Godard or Dylan. He seems to enjoy making pronouncements like "Cinema must not tell stories. It's aberrant" even though both features are characterized by chronological narratives. What he means is that he dislikes movies whose main purpose is to bring the viewer from one plot point to another.

    Reygadas is interested in providing sensorial experiences involving characters whose nature and morality are open to interpretation. The behavioral motivations of Marcos and Ana are particularly vague. The filmmaker's avowed disinterest in character psychology and expository dialogue puts the onus on the viewer to interpret mostly visual clues. Watching Batalla en el Cielo is an exhilarating experience; thinking about it and decoding it afterwards is challenging and rewarding. The film has been swimming inside my head for quite a while, as I continue to ponder its deep and terrifying mysteries.

  3. #3
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    Originally posted by oscar jubis
    Immediately after watching Batalla en el Cielo, I felt compelled to watch it again. .
    There are some films which compel you to watch them again, but some like Battle, for me, require some space between viewings simply because they are rather uncomfortable to sit through. On the other hand, I rewatched Tropical Malady almost immediately.
    "They must find it hard, those who have taken authority as truth, rather than truth as authority" Gerald Massey

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    Your review evidences that a critic finding the film "rather uncomfortable to sit through" need not interfere with its being appreciated, or at least responsibly reviewed. I've done some extensive review analysis and my findings don't paint a pretty picture. For purposes of this discussion, let's disregard the positive reviews. What concerns me here is the nature of most of the negative reviews. Basically, these reveal a variety of puritanical, racist, xenophobic and bourgeoise attitudes among both pro and amateur critics. The contempt, hatred and vitriol is hard to believe.

    It's not always directed solely at Mr. Reygadas but also at the characters and at the non-actors playing them. The ignorant insults are so pervasive there's no point in identifying the authors of lines like: Marcos "looks like rancid dog meat", "the old 300-pound roll is a loathsome slob"; the characters are "a bunch of slow-witted, thyroid-impaired moral imbeciles". About the love-making scene between Marcos and his wife someone wrote "you have to wonder if they were told to degrade themselves for the camera".

    Reading some reviews I got the feeling the film offended many a critic's sensibilities (or made him/her uncomfortable) but he/she was unwilling to admit that. The solution then was to look for excuses to pan the film. I mean, I'd understand someone disliking the acting style or finding fault with the script's vague character motivations, for instance. But how can you reconcile your experience of watching Battle in Heaven with Rex Reed's comment: "the worst cinematography this side of a 10th grade highschool camera class"? Even after accounting for taste differences (not everyone will find the cinematography "brilliant" as you and I and many others do), I have to conclude that Mr. Reed is an extremist and an incompetent who needs to find a different occupation.

    On a lighter note, some reviewers simply demonstrate what I call "first-world bias", a lack of knowledge about life in developing countries (Mexico in this case). For instance, a UK writer went on and on about how unrealistic it was to have Marcos and wife kidnap a child of a working-class family.

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    Originally posted by oscar jubis
    Your review evidences that a critic finding the film "rather uncomfortable to sit through" need not interfere with its being appreciated, or at least responsibly reviewed. ]
    It's hard to believe some of these critics actually get paid for writing such drivel. I usually stick with critics I know will have an intelligent and sensitive response to uncomfortable films. On the other hand, without justifying it at all, Reygadas seems to go out of his way to provoke people into these kinds of reactions.
    "They must find it hard, those who have taken authority as truth, rather than truth as authority" Gerald Massey

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    It doesn't seem to me logical for you (Oscar) to imply that someone who is offended by a movie has no right to find it artistically unsuccessful too. Coming from a different perspective, I often find movies that offend me to be artistic failures.

    Knowing what's in the film, one can see that obviously many viewers would be offended. Don't mainstream reviewers consider it their job to protect the general audience from movies that it would be likely to find offensive or disgusting? I don't see the use of fretting over that. The public isn't going to ever be ready to watch fat men getting blow jobs, and mainstream reviewers aren't going to urge it to do so.

    It's a little late for Rex Reed to find another occupation, but his extremism and intemperance have long been obvious. If you want to get pissed off, continue reading his reviews. I might suggest you add Armond White to your diet. He will piss you off just as much, but perhaps less predictably.

    I am sure Howard is right: Reygadas does go out of his way to provoke reactions. I was interested to see that Michael Atkinson, who is often brutal about movies, is very admiring and calls Battle in Heaven "the one to beat" this season. I haven't seen it yet. On the other hand, I thought Scott Foundas expressed his more jaundiced view of Battle in Heaven in LA Weekly rather interestingly too and made some critical points that I'd consider worth my considering when I evaluate the film, which I look forward to doing. Japón was a brillantly original piece of work.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    It doesn't seem to me logical for you (Oscar) to imply that someone who is offended by a movie has no right to find it artistically unsuccessful too.

    Arrrrgggghhhh! I give up. I thought writing "what concerns me here is the nature of most of the negative reviews", with the word "nature" underlined would clearly indicate that I'm not at all concerned with the reviews being negative. I included numerous quotes as examples of precisely what I mean by the nature of the reviews. I'm not at all bothered by anything in Foundas review for instance, even though I didn't find it particularly insightful or interesting.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 06-14-2006 at 03:14 AM.

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    Originally posted by Howard Schumann
    Reygadas seems to go out of his way to provoke people into these kinds of reactions.

    Oh, absolutely. I'm convinced Reygadas means to make people aware of a variety of biases and prejudices within themselves by eschewing certain notions about what is "in good taste" and by creating a fictional story in which: people who are not young and pretty are shown fucking the way many other filmmaker would show a young, attractive couple fucking.

    Even more importantly (based on what Reygadas has said during interviews), he has created a story in which a rich person initiates sex with a lower-class one seemingly as an empathetic and compassionate response to his emotional pain, and/or as an act of radical politics. Reygadas appears to be dismayed at the arrogance of the rich and educated class he comes from, and preoccupied with the widening gap between classes (a topic Americans avoid like the plague). He aimed to make a radical and transgressive film and he hit the bull's-eye.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 06-14-2006 at 03:05 AM.

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    I was discussing with a friend about the splendor of Birth of a Nation, and we got to pondering about how it would be received today. Let's just say, for all intensive purposes, that even in this day and age, that the film were revolutionary. Considering the meteoric rise in racial tolerance, would a film such as one by D.W. Griffith be allowed to enjoy praise by anyone?
    "So I'm a heel, so what of it?"
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    This hypothetical is unwieldy. Birth of a Nation turned a novelty entertainment into an art form (at least here in the USA). Suddenly people realized the potentialities of a new medium. It's impossible to think of any film having such an impact nowadays. It's not D.W. Griffith's best film, not even close. But it was revolutionary and it came first.

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    OK, then I'll use a different example. Today there is a huge argument going on about the artistic merit of video games. While I side with Ebert on his convictions that they aren't, I feel I have a better position on the matter considering he's never played one in his life. I think that video games haven't had their Birth of a Nation to bring them into a revolutionary age yet. So what if today one game was released that did change the standard for interactive entertainment, but the plot was about the Jew's plot to take over the world as detailed in the false proclamations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? I'm just trying to learn if we as a people today would be able to see past its foundations and appreciate it for its groundbreaking methods.
    "So I'm a heel, so what of it?"
    --Renaldo the Heel, from Crimewave

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    I believe so. I think the game would be appreciated for its methods and use of available technologies. I also believe it would be condemned for its content, even banned (at least temporarily) in parts of the country (like South Florida). A year after Birth of a Nation, Griffith released a film, Intolerance, even more masterful form-wise than Birth, with content that counteracts the transgressions of the second half of that debut. I doubt the makers of your hypothetical video game would be so gracious.

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