Addled underdog treads raunchy Via Dolorosa through Mexico City
BATTLE IN HEAVEN
Directed by Carlos Reygadas
In Spanish, with English subtitles
Opens Feb. 17
Angelika Film Center
Young Mexican director Carlos Reygadas accords Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) a proper star entrance, filling the screen with geometrically patterned glass that parts in the middle to display the fair-featured Venus.
The young Mexican director Carlos Reygadas likes you to know who’s boss. At the start of his debut feature “Japón,” the protagonist tears a bird’s head off and drops it to the ground; a tableau of its staring eyes and twitching mouth mirrors the viewer’s stunned submission. Similarly, “Battle in Heaven,” luring audiences with salacious rumor, shoves your desire back at you from the get-go.
First we see the homely, brown, impassive face of Marcos (Marcos Hernández) against a blank field. The camera floats down his smooth bulbous trunk to reveal a thatch of blonde dreadlocks rhythmically bobbing in front of his groin. Circling around, we discover the blowjob is as real as you please. The lens digitally assumes the position of the tumescent member, framing an extreme close-up of the girl’s closed eyes; she opens them and a single tear, flecked with mascara, escapes down her cheek.
Cut to a nighttime drill, where olive-uniformed soldiers ritually raise the Mexican flag, unfurling a billowing wedge skyward as a drum tattoo crackles. At the rear of the phalanx is Marcos, in step with the men like a camp follower, but set apart by his pedestrian jeans and black bomber. The hoisting of the flag is equated with the viewer’s physical arousal, and instantly we’re in a minefield of national allegory, with the emblem of mexicanidad impaled on what Octavio Paz called “the masculine pole of life.”
The priapic salute is short-circuited, however, when a cell-phone call delivers bad news. Marcos says, “I’ll come right over,” then remains stock-still, evincing a paralysis, a mental quicksand that pulls him deeper even as he struggles to free himself, transgressing his socially sanctioned limits in outbursts of intensifying violence.
Marcos and his yet more ample wife (Bertha Ruiz) appear side by side against a corrugated wall, bathed by fluorescent rays as nerve-rattling chimes ping at top volume. Through a deadpan exchange, we deduce that a child has died in their care. This floods Marcos with anguish whereas she seems to take it in stoic stride, keeping one eye on their blanket of cakes and trinkets outspread in an underground passageway.
Reygadas’ singular achievement in “Battle” is the bravura simulation of Marcos’ tormented subjectivity. Following real-life extras as they pass by Marcos and his wife, the camera pans left with a daydreaming lad, then right with a middle-aged gent in a pantsuit and Roy Orbison coif, then left again with a shuffling senior, a catheter drooping from his waist to a clear plastic bag filled with urine held at his side, spontaneously telescoping the ages of mankind into a single shot. When gaggles of red- and green- uniformed students cross in opposite directions before the couple in slow motion, the film momentarily tips into science fiction.
Marcos heads to the airport to fetch Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), daughter of the general who employs him. Reygadas accords her a proper star entrance, filling the screen with geometrically patterned glass that parts in the middle to display the same fair-featured Venus whose oral skills we glimpsed at the outset, resplendent in her sandy locks and flowing chocolate cloak, greeting Marcos with a husky purr.
Turns out that princess, though she keeps a legit boyfriend, moonlights as a courtesan in a genteel bordello. Discerning that her poor page is stressed, Ana offers to treat him to a roll with one of the girls, but he can’t get it on with anyone else. Huffing upstairs, Ana perceives Marcos sexually for apparently the first time, sweetly scolding him, “You’ve known me since I was a child. You’re the only one who knows about this place. I invite you here and you tell my friends you want to screw me?”
He blurts the tawdry McGuffin—he and the missus kidnapped a baby for ransom, who’s just died in their custody—and Ana immediately heats up, stretching back on the bed in a midriff-baring bodice to gaze at his massy flesh, lingering on the sweat pooled at his buttocks, trickling over his belt, the human stain itself. Across the course of the film his unraveling will be measured in other stains, increasingly harder to ignore.
Perhaps this is the place to note the heavily autobiographical cast of Marcos and Ana’s relationship, since Hernández actually worked as a valet for Reygadas’ own family, and has indeed known the filmmaker from childhood. If Ana is in this regard the director’s surrogate, and if it’s also true, as he avers in the current issue of Senses of Cinema, that “I feel closer to Marcos,” then Marcos and Ana’s graphically depicted coitus gains the impression of autoerotic narcissism doubled inward.
Glossing motifs from the holy combat in “Paradise Lost,” the film’s climactic spasm could be a rendering of Milton’s lines: “[F]rom the gash / A stream of nectarous humour issuing flowed / Sanguin, such as celestial Spirits may bleed.” But the closest thing to paradise here is Ana’s high-rise condo, an ideal space exclusive to the elite, literally looking down on Mexico City’s tumult. Marcos and Ana’s copulation is preceded by an aerial tableau of a buzzing freeway loop.
By turns harrowing and sumptuous, “Battle” is elevated by Reygadas’ tightly coiled pacing, punchy sound design, and silken lensing. Reygadas casually inserts a sly homage to “Chinatown,” draping the star auras of Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson over his naked, plus-sized amateurs. In another reflexive skit, cinematographer Diego Martínez Vignatti cameos as a topless footballer named Vignatti, interviewed in a stadium packed with roaring fans. At least they’re not burdened by false modesty.