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Battle in Heaven

Normally I don't do DVD reviews, but

Battle in Heaven

was one the favorite films of San Diego Latino Film Festival director Ethan Van Thillo, and when I failed to catch it at the festival I figured I could see it when it opened in theaters. But the film only had theatrical play in Los Angeles and New York. So I had to wait for it to come out on DVD to finally see it and review it. It's a film that's worth the wait and worth seeing because Carlos Reygadas is a filmmaker with a provocative cinematic agenda.

Reygadas opens his film with a clinically graphic scene of fellatio. It's explicit enough to offend some or many filmgoers yet it's not really gratuitous or pornographic. Neither is it sexy or glamorous as it might be in a Hollywood movie. This opening proves a bold provocation to filmgoers and that's precisely why Reygadas choose to start with such a controversial scene. As he puts it: "I wanted to say in the beginning that this is what the film is about. This is how I feel. If you want to accept that and maybe even if you like that, then come on and let's go together. And if you don't like it then you might as well leave the theater now. I won't make you waste your time. I feel like the most important thing should be said first."

So if you're willing to accept Reygadas's invitation'or maybe it's more accurate to consider it a challenge'then you'll find a fascinating film. The story concerns Marcos (Marcos Hern?ndez), the driver for a wealthy young woman named Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz). Ana works part time in a brothel, not because she needs the money but rather because she seems bored and doesn't really know what to do with her time. Marcos has a wife and together they recently kidnapped a child in an attempt to get money. But the child died. Marcos, who's having something of an affair with Ana, confesses his crime to her. She says that he must turn himself in. His wife, however, insists that they atone for their sins by joining the pilgrimage to the church.

Describing the plot, however, he misses what the film is really about because Reygadas is not really interested in such objective details. Instead, he's interested in exploring subjective truths and moral conflicts. In order to pursue these ideas, he employs an approach, which in some ways seems counterintuitive. He uses non-professional actors who deliver their lines in what he refers to as a very "mechanical" style marked by a lack of inflection or overt emotion. He then shoots in a very stark, striped down manner that relies on a fairly static camera. So in a certain respect, the film seems very artificial. Yet this stylized approach ultimately makes the events that play out seem more real and truthful. Because the actors deliver their lines in a kind of flat monotone, it forces us to think about what they are saying and why they are saying it. In an odd way it proves more intellectually engaging than a more openly emotional delivery would be. He exercises a control over the medium that recalls directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsaio-Hsien, although his content is considerably different.

Reygadas's meticulous sense of planning is evident in every frame and frequently seems designed to provoke us. A scene of Marcos having sex with his wife ends with the camera landing on a painting, hanging above the bed, and depicting a barely clothed Christ. The image makes us think about the place of religion in the characters' lives and about how such images affect them. Later, a scene of violence occurs abruptly and is shot in a very direct, simple way so that we have to try to consider the interior motives of the character because we're not being given much objective information. That's because Reygadas doesn't want to explain what's going on; he wants to let things unfold and for us to do the work in terms of discovering meaning.

Reygadas also does simple yet effective things visually to convey the subjectivity of the characters. Take for instance when Marcos breaks his glasses and must pick up Ana at the airport. Reygadas uses shots that are out of focus to reflect Marcos' perspective. As he follows Ana at the airport, we see the world in a blur yet it's clear that Ana is moving in a different world from him. Although Reygadas claims that he didn't intend to emphasize class divisions, this scene does just that.

Battle in Heaven is harsh yet not without some unexpectedly tender moments. It's a film that some might find offensive, and even if you appreciate his work it's not easy goings by any means. But Battle in Heaven tries to redefine the language and grammar of cinema for audiences who've gotten used to the simple narrative structure of mainstream filmmaking. Reygadas wants cinema to be more than just about telling a linear, narrative story'it's about constructing ideas from the manipulation of elements.

Battle in Heaven builds with unexpected force as it captures something tragic and very human in the frailties and flaws of its characters. Reygadas has been promoting the DVD release of the film and took time to speak with me by phone.

BETH ACCOMANDO: "You open and close the film with similar sexual scenes, very graphic and stark in terms of the composition of the shots, yet the emotional tones of the two scenes are very different."

CARLOS REYGADAS: "Yes. In the beginning there's a kind of chaos, a searching for and longing for something. I feel the beginning of the film represents this longing for something better, for communication, for pleasure, for tenderness. But somehow there's so much tension; you can see he's tense and she's even crying. Although life's meant to be beautiful and all the elements are there for ecstasy, the fact is that everything is ruined and maybe that's the way we feel today in this world. But then at the end, after all this catharsis has happened, there is a new life somehow, and a purer way, and only then can they manage to say the simplest and easiest of words: 'I love you' and 'I love you too.'"

BA: "What inspired you to make this film?"

CR: "One of the simplest motivations was one day when it was raining and I was under a little roof that comes out of the side of a church and I was protecting myself from rain. I saw this man with only trousers, no shirt or shoes, and he was walking in the rain with a shrine of the virgin mother of Guadeloupe, and he was walking in the rain, and he had a candle. I thought that was such a powerful image and I thought I would do a film that would have that image in it. But the real motivation of the film is more the moral conflict that Marcos has. That's what I really wanted to talk about. Like I've heard about these people who kidnap others and have no remorse at all and describe everything physically and simply with no regrets. I'm thinking what should be happening in these people's minds, whether there should be a clash between their nature and the fact that you are doing things so recklessly."

BA: "You have the kidnapping and death of the child occur off screen. Why?"

CR: "It's a trigger that's so important because it triggers his moral conflict. But I would find it banal, even cruel, and a waste of time and stupid to shoot the actual way the kidnapping is done. I know most films portray how things actually happen but I think it's much more interesting to feel and to think about things rather than to see how they happen. I mean a war film can be great if it makes you think and feel something about the stupidity of war. But if you only see things exploding and planes crashing down, well that's in my opinion very useless."

BA: "Describe the way you wanted your film to look."

CR: "I just wanted to be very pure and simple, not flashing things. I wanted a simple camera looking at things. It's all like very raw. I wanted the film to be very raw and to be more about the feelings inside rather than on the outside. Only in films is it very clear why people do everything but in real life whenever something strange happens or something not so strange, things are not so evident as they are in film. They are profound and complex, and you have to think about them and observe them, and your conclusions will be very different from someone next to you that is probably observing just as much as you because everything in the end is a subjective truth that may have some kind of objective reality in it. But I am interested in the subjectiveness of things, and also the subjectiveness of the receiving individual. So I didn't want to say that Marcos is doing this because of that and Ana is doing this because of that. I think it's much more complex than that."

BA: "How did you want to depict religion and the Catholic Church?"

CR: "I wasn't trying to say something specifically about Mexico and the Catholic Church. But rather what happens all over the world among humans that we do need to create religion because maybe without religion we would have to be very spiritually powerful to be able to live. But because maybe we're not spiritually powerful, we create religion and abide by their rules and dogmas. So in a way, Marcos' wife is very typical of this. She sees that there's a way out of the situation, let's just go and ask for forgiveness. But there's a way to clean your soul in every religion in the world. But Marcos happens to be one of those strange persons that feel that there is some hypocrisy and stupidity to that and to those methods. So he tries to find his way out by his own means but not rationally. Unfortunately he's not powerful enough and he falls. It may seem that I am criticizing the Mexican church but not really. It would be the same if I made the film in a Buddhist country."

BA: "Why do you choose to work with non-professional actors?"

CR: "Because I wanted the people in the film to be unknown because otherwise the audience is thinking that's 'x' or 'y' person doing this new role. And I wanted them to be pure like virgins. The other thing is I don't want them to interpret a role. I just want them to say things mechanically and let cinema construct the characters rather than the actors constructing characters. I think the most powerful and unexploited element of cinema is that through montage and editing and timing and its language, cinema is capable of constructing characters and feelings without the need of actors constructing those things."

BA: "I loved some of your shots, like when Marcos stops at an intersection and is transfixed by the way the loud music is making the car mirror vibrate. That shot really puts you inside his head for that moment."

CR: "That's nice, because I really like those little things that you're mentioning. That's how you make the viewer eventually feel the film from within as if you were the person in real life. We have this obsession that cinema must tell a good story, which is a stupid idea in my opinion as we were just storytellers. Then there's a tendency to become very objective because we're always narrating things from the outside. But we're never feeling from within. This thing with the mirror happened to me. I was listening to music in my car waiting at a traffic light, and I noticed that the mirror was vibrating and that particular moment made me realize that at that particular moment I was alive, that something was happening. That kind of little movement you see very rarely in cinema because if you're telling the story from the outside then everything becomes archetypical and you don't feel things from within. So I really like to pay attention to those little elements and things that we would actually experience in natural everyday life."

BA: "There's another scene where Marcos stares at a painting on the wall and then the camera pans to a man cutting watermelon and he's perfectly framed by the kitchen alcove, and he looks like a painting."

CR: "Not many people feel that from that scene but yeah, of course I was playing with that. Actually I wasn't completely happy with that shot because although the marks were there for perfect framing'so that the square would be perfect'but the camera moved a little bit too much so the lines weren't parallel with the camera lines. But apart from that it's like everything, it is a subjective truth again. Like characters in a painting can be characters cutting watermelon in an actual kitchen. It all depends on how you perceive things individually. So yeah I was playing a little with that."

BA: " Battle in Heaven and your earlier film Japon both played at the Cannes Film Festival. Are your films more popular in Europe that in your native Mexico?"

CR: "Actually, they are not popular anywhere. There's a small minority that likes them but the fact is that they have a particular quality that can be admired by people in any country but they are not popular anywhere. This film has a little niche in every society and that is something interesting. But it's for very few people."

Companion viewing: Japon , Flowers of Shanghai , A Taste of Cherry , Henry Fool . -----

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