The camera slowly pans down his person, letting our eyes crawl down his person inch by inch. We take in his flabby breasts and morbidly obese belly. And then we see her. A blond dreadlocked head, giving him head.
Ok, back to the first frame, a few seconds ago.
The dreadlocked head is Ana’s (Anapola Mushkadiz). A closeup of her face reveals a fresh, youthful girl. Her eyes are closed and her mouth full, taking her time. Someone who, without much debate, would be considered to be way above Marcos’ game.
Which again, takes us back to his expression. How can he remain so unaffected and detached in spite of such a performance?
This is the way Battle in Heaven introduces our protagonist. A few, silent, intimate seconds which tell us quite about everything there is to know about him.
The story unfolds slowly and the dialogue is sparse. It feels ultra-realistic where content and pacing are concerned, which is a filmmaking technique I not only enjoy but am a devoted enthusiast of. Despite its slow pacing, the film remains thoroughly intriguing.
B.I.H offers up real, complex characters who proceed to take our sympathies hostage for a long time. These characters can almost be smelt and touched and held, rendered real by their flaws and utter brokenness.
Marcos is incapable of displaying emotion, this is clearly shown in the first scene and becomes ever more pronounced as the movie goes on. His lack of ability to be self aware and fully present is symptomatic of something far, far graver than the unlucky cards he’d been dealt at birth in the form of his obesity and plain ugliness.
The state of Marcos’ mental health is questioned yet again in the second scene, where we see him at work. He does something or other for the Mexican army, apparently a gate keeper at the barracks, although there could be more to his job that isn’t really explained. During this scene, we see a whole squadron of soldiers working together to raise a gigantic flag. And Marcos, a huge fat man if there ever was one, looks miniscule below it. Tiny and Insignificant. The flag; Mexico; the bigger picture, looms over all.
Apart from his army job, he and his wife operate a stall in the underground selling a hotchpotch of items ranging from clocks to jelly custard cakes. They’re essentially selling items nobody seems interested in buying.
It’s a fast world in the underground where everyone’s too busy to give Marcos their ime of day.
Through the slow and long takes of people running around from one place to the next with Marcos and his wife standing still at their stall, it is clearly conveyed that Marcos is just a number, existing with the many others that swarm the underground on their way to something else.
There is a measure of intrigue going on in Marcos’ life and a bit of danger too, no doubt. An interesting artistic decision which, in my opinion, worked, is that all the dramatic action that Marcos’ has been through or caused has already taken place at a time and place before the actual film takes place. So we never really get to meet the real, unburdened Marcos. He is in an absentminded daze, and for a very serious reason too. He and his wife are colluding on quite an unforgivable crime. Plagued by remorse for what he’s committed, he is waiting, day by day, for the curtain to fall. He’s postponed coming clean with the law as much as he could.
Once he confides his sin with Ana, he’s able to rest somewhat. This girl has been his ward since childhood and somehow this has developed into friendship with benefits. The question of why Ana chooses time and time again to give herself to Marcos willingly while also seemingly enjoying herself looms large. The relationship between them begets quite a number of questions without any answers. Did he groom her? Or, as unlikely as it is, is it she that is taking advantage of him and his fragile mental state? Or is there really affinity between the two?
Ana is fresh faced and clean compared to every sun burnt, flabby face in Marcos’ world. Marcos is faithful to his wife, but he’s ready to compromise where Ana’s involved. She signifies all the possible options for a better life. She’s limber and hip. Marcos’ wife is a humble, brown, pear-shaped Mexican caricature. She’s also his life partner in the eyes of God (and partner in crime).
He cannot feel better when he’s around his wife. She is darkness to Ana’s light. It’s a fascinating threesome indeed. In a way, by each character knowing and being privy to just one dimension of the other, each character becomes a saviour of the other. (Ana knows about the wife. The wife is aware that Marcos is friendly with the ward).
B.I.H relies a lot on the audience attempting to interpret the myriad of allegorical scenes it offers. This is one of the aspects I really enjoyed about it. One particular scene is memorable for its blatant and powerful use of montage. It says a lot about the power the female yields over the male simply through the beauty of her body (perhaps as a weapon).
The sequence goes as follows: Ana and Marcos are in bed. As far as Marcos is concerned, his wife doesn’t need to know about this part of his life. He’s faithful to her, but he also admits to Ana that sometimes he sleeps around with other lovers. He finds sex with Ana comforting. She is, after all, just like family to him.
After reaching orgasm herself, Ana remains atop him for a while. This is the moment Marcos chooses to confesses his crime. With Marcos deliberately not being given the opportunity to climax, she slowly descends and lies beside him. His member still fully erect, she simply states one sentence, ‘You’ll have to turn yourself in, Marcos.’
His facial expression doesn’t change. He’d been expecting such a request. We’re given a midshot of both their lower bodies lying outstretched beside each other. Marcos’, at one moment full of longing, is slowly deflated (in real-time). All his confidence, all his will, all his happiness is slowly drained away, leaving him vulnerable.
We’re then given a closeup of his depressed, guilt ridden face. He never even nods or says anything to indicate an answer or other. Cut to a closeup of Ana’s vulva. It lingers there for a few moments. As if pictured through his mind’s eye. Ana’s sex is the only one thing he’s loyal to. The only thing that can command him anything. The one true master he recognises and can never deny. Cut to their hands clasping together as way of agreement. He will turn himself in. He adores her.
A remarkable example of the power of the montage – unrestrained by the inhibitions and limitations of a Hollywoodized lens.
Another beautiful scene happens shortly after when he’s decided to go to the police and give himself in. He’s standing in a field, with heavy machinery nearby emitting exhaust in his direction. The fuel emissions are so thick they appear as if they were clouds. He just stands still, staring onwards through white clouds of smoke enveloping him. Its pure pageantry, ethereal in its aesthetics. Through this very powerful use of imagery, one can only imagine what’s going on in his head, or even better, in his tormented soul. It is as if its already all over… he’s admitted his crime and he’s been forgiven by God himself and has admitted at Heaven’s gates.
A contrasting element that happens in the same scene but which makes it even more beautiful is that while he’s standing there, shrouded in clouds of exhaust, he’s actually staring at a man a few metres on who is hammering a spoke into the ground. I’m sure that at that moment, Marcos would have imagined himself hammering the last nail in his coffin by his planned confession.
One should note that Marcos and his wife are quite the conservative Catholics. The story’s backdrop is chockfull of Religious Mexican imagery which gives further weight to Marcos’ guilt and anxiety.
The muted bells at the end of the film seem like they’re pealing for no one. Not for Marcos. Not for Ana. Not for God. Perhaps God abandoned Marcos after all. Perhaps Marcos’ crime was too much for Him to handle. Perhaps all his pain was, after all, in vain.
This was a really wonderful film from Carlos Reygadas. The casting couldn’t have been more inspired. The situations are glaringly realistic however their translation to screen is poetic, and in a way, even romantic. It is a bite of Mexican cinema which is sure to leave you with a bittersweet aftertaste for many weeks after.
Have you watched Battle in Heaven? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!
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