Battle in Heaven
2006
Set in Mexico City, Carlos Reygadas's sexually explicit drama centers on a man in turmoil over his past actions. Chauffer Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) feels compelled to reveal a dark secret to his boss's daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), a wealthy woman who works as a prostitute just for the thrill of it. Marcos confesses that he and his wife committed a crime that ended in horrible tragedy. Haunted by his past, Marcos searches for redemption.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

If the cinema is an emotional medium in which directors try to make you feel a certain way about their subject, then it must be true some directors want to hurt you just to make their point. Battle in Heaven is hostile to its audience, so I don't recommend it despite its high rating. It frequently goes for minutes at a time without dialogue or action, and it puts its sympathic hero through more excrutiating humiliations than any Ben Stiller comedy could muster. But, if you're patient and willing to interpret the film's turns for yourself, it sings a quiet, sad song about a man's quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his god and his country, and I'm glad to have heard it. I won't lie; I was first attracted to the film by its frequent graphic sex scenes, without which I suppose no one would be attracted to it, but I was lucky to have enjoyed it despite itself and I don't think many others will be so lucky. In other words: Actual results may vary.

[Major spoilers ahead.] My interpretation depends on an ethnic stereotype about Roman Catholic Mexicans, but it's not like the film doesn't depend on them either, including such shots as a family of eleven slowly pouring out of a single car like they're performing in a Ringling show. The hero, Marcos, believes in the sanctity of life, even for a prostitute, even for a baby that his wife bullied him into kidnapping from her best friend. He stares with almost pedophilic focus on happy, singing children and seems stirred. I believe he wonders, if all of these people are sanctified, why not me too? His life heaps one humiliation upon another, and no one tells him they love him; his wife can barely mumble the words in an attempt to win his favor after smacking him so hard he loses his glasses. Marcos hears a footballer remark about going back to his loving family and declares it a fantasy. He is a proud, patriotic Mexican, so much so that when he passes through the film's symbolic version of Heaven and arrives on a mountaintop and sees a glorious vision of the countryside beneath him, he is moved to tears. This convinces him to try for redemption with the prostitute he loves, but she reacts to his vow to do the right thing with a good-bye kiss and indifference. After he turns on her with silent rage, he takes the only redemptive path he knows, and earns his way into Heaven in the final seconds of the film. He is not a Christ figure because his sacrifice would save no one but himself, and whether he's worthy of blessing after the things he has done is questionable, but I for one found his journey moving and thought-provoking. In its own nearly-unwatchable way, it's one of the best films of the year.

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