Carlos Reygadas’ Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005) more than fulfils the promise of his expansive, sometimes astonishing first feature, Japón (2002). Like the earlier film, it employs a cast of non-professionals, draws on the traditions of European modernist cinema and centrally features graphic sex involving types of bodies usually denied erotic existence in cinematic representation. Unlike Japón, it is an urban drama that largely eschews the uniquely rambling pace of its rustic predecessor in favour of a taut, brutal narrative that, on paper, could not be more luridly sensationalist.
A middle-aged chaffeur, Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) have kidnapped a baby that died in their captivity. While the wife seems content to make amends by participating in a religious procession, Marcos confesses to Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the beautiful young daughter of his wealthy employer. She is working as a prostitute in a high-class brothel for mysterious reasons, possibly out of boredom. Marcos is obsessed with her. She tells him to turn himself in, but agrees to have sex with him. He decides to give himself up but keeps putting off doing so until he snaps and commits a violent crime.
The plot and themes could belong to any number of films noir. What is unique about Battle in Heaven, and the source of its greatness, is the way it articulates the rupture in reality Marcos has experienced, with the plot details serving as coordinates in the mapping of a very particular subjective existential terrain. There is plot-generated suspense but this is decidedly secondary to a more immediate suspense: how will Marcos experience reality from moment to moment, shot to shot? How will reality reveal itself to him? It is in giving the audience direct perceptual access to Marcos’ sense of the world, one of confusion and vulnerability, that Reygadas excels. The drama of Battle in Heaven is not, at least up until the closing scenes, what the world will do to Marcos so much as how he will perceive it.
It is significant that the audience sees nothing of the infant’s kidnap and death; from the outset, we are plunged into the world as Marcos experiences it in the aftermath of his trauma. The shambling, fattish, unprepossessing, relatively inarticulate protagonist is in a position of having to renegotiate his relationship with the world, of having to process feelings that refuse to clarify themselves and which he proves himself ill-equipped to handle, even in view of the advice or example of others.
Rather than a Hitchcockian configuration of paranoid reciprocity between protagonist and the details of the world, Reygadian space remains almost documentary in its observational detachment and, as such, relentlessly objective even when imbued with the character’s subjectivity. It is a subjectivity existing within and attempting to process the waves of reality that crash against it with every new image. As viewers, we are caused to share in Marcos’ hypersensitivity to his immediate environment, which makes for consistently surprising and stimulating cinema. His inability to align the impulses of his inner conflict with the indifference of reality is what Battle in Heaven’s form relates. This dislocation is graphed through a series of impeccably conceived and often extreme physical events or gestures rather than through dialogue.
I spoke to Carlos Reygadas on the telephone, shortly after Battle in Heaven was screened at the 2005 Cork Film Festival.
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MAXIMILIAN LE CAIN: Whereas Japón was set in the countryside and employed its rural location with lyrical emphasis, Battle in Heaven is much more sombrely urban. What were the implications of this contrast for you?
CARLOS REYGADAS: I wanted very much to shoot in Mexico City after having shot in the countryside. From the beginning, I realised that, instead of so much camera movement, I would need to intercut more angles, to explore space through cutting between the various shots. And I found that a great challenge. What I like most in the film is the cadence in the cutting of the shots. It was a very rewarding experience plastically. Also in terms of sound and in every other sense. It was only a much more difficult task regarding practical issues, to have all the permits, to move around with thirty people in the city, and those kind of superficial things.
MLC: What struck me most about the film is the way you orchestrate urban space to constantly generate events. It is as if the camera never quite knows what the space before it will yield up at the beginning of any shot. This can take the form of sudden surprises, like the unexpected cut to the man in the wheelchair. But, more often, it occurs within shots where the space is well established before anything happens. A good example is the scene in the underground where you pan to follow one character that appears to drift into frame, like the child, and then pan again in the opposite direction to follow another character that has drifted into shot, like the old man.
CR: What I’m really interested in is not telling the story as you would tell the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant, but rather to feel a state of mind. This is not something that I planned, but something that I felt. I tried to feel the camera not as an element of description but as an element of feeling, as a tool for feeling. So I imagine I am inside the body of this man [Marcos, who is observing the above described passers-by in the subway] and somehow the camera is inside his mind. So the camera looks at things and it’s always things that pull your sight around, rather than you describing with your eyes something for somebody else. This is the way I get inside a character and this is what is happening in the example you gave in the corridor in the tube. You’re seeing the child and suddenly you see something more interesting, so you turn around and then suddenly you see something else going in the other direction and you turn around again. And then, the funny thing is, this subjective camera transforms into something objective because all of a sudden, in the same shot, you see Marcos from the back! I didn’t want to be dominated by having to decide between a literally subjective or objective viewpoint. I can change from one to the other because I’m only interested in the state of mind.
MLC: This use of space creates a powerful state of suspense for the viewer and implies that, for the character, being in the world is a condition of insecurity or even dread.
CR: I think that somehow in life, if you have committed a terrible crime, or someone has died directly because of a crime you have committed, then somehow you must be doomed. At least there should be some dread. So, of course, there’s always this weight upon us, upon Marcos – we’re Marcos in the film. I feel it can only end badly from the beginning. We’re always hoping for something better, but it can only manifest with great difficulty.
MLC: It seems Marcos tries to hide from this image of the world and from confronting his fate: he loses his glasses, he ends up with head covered by a hood during the religious procession. He also tries to hide in the comfort of other bodies during the film’s various sex scenes.
CR: As we do very often in life. We want to distract ourselves. It’s difficult to face certain things and sometimes, even if you want to, you don’t have the concentration or the energy. And this is what Marcos is trying to do: somehow postpone the moment when he has to face himself. And, although he tries to postpone it, of course time cannot be stopped and things keep working inside him.
MLC: The scene in which, it seems to me, you best articulate this is the sex scene between Ana and Marcos. You begin with them making love, achieving a certain closeness; then the camera moves out of the room, slowly panning around the courtyard outside, passing the windows of other apartments; then it returns to the room where Ana and Marcos lie side by side on the bed – their bodies appear so tragically, irremediably objectified and distant from each other.
CR: Yes, exactly. Because even though Ana can have a certain closeness to Marcos and can even joke around with him or call him tender names or even, I wanted to epitomise this with the fact that they can even actually have sex. But, notwithstanding that, after all – and maybe this is why we go out on the terrace and we again show objectivity and, let’s say, macro stuff instead of micro – when we come back it’s obvious that there’s always going to be a massive barrier between them. They’re from completely different worlds. They can even touch each other physically, they can do whatever they want, but on a really truthful, internal level, even on a human, intimate level, there will always be a massive barrier. And maybe this is why they can only share their energy in another dimension, like death – at least from Marcos’ point of view.
MLC: Japón had a very loose, rambling structure. In comparison, I found Battle in Heaven surprisingly taut and precise. Part of this precision derives from your ability to articulate the narrative in a series of eloquent physical gestures.
CR: I wanted to do something that was very tight and precise, but without resorting to the usual tools of condensing narrative in cinema – condensing, on one hand, but always sticking to what I feel is like the essence of cinema, which is observation. If you don’t observe, you will miss the film. And this is why I’m against eating popcorn in my films, for example, because just at the moment when you look down at the bag containing popcorn, you might lose a gesture that could be the key to understanding some crucial communication. In other films, these things are said and are said many times and out loud. This is why you should not take your eyes off the screen, because you might miss something that won’t be said again in any other way.
MLC: Your approach to actors seems similarly predicated on this belief in observation. I met Anapola Mushkadiz last week and was much struck by her description of forming a completely different opinion of her character every time she sees the film. It’s as if she was never ‘inside’ her character in any traditionally psychological way. Instead, you were drawing on her physical presence in quite a mysterious way.
CR: That is exactly what I intend. Although people say that this character is a frivolous rich girl and bored, and that is why she prostitutes herself, I think that is only a way of trying to understand what she is by looking at superficial aspects of her. What I think really is that there is a human energy that is given off by the sole fact of our existence. And this existence is always the same, but we perceive ourselves and others, and others perceive us, always differently depending on so many variables. And this is exactly what I’m trying to do: to base this film much more on perception than on predetermined description or closed description of character, which is something I don’t believe applies except in theatre and bad cinema. Not in real life. I wanted to feel this human presence that is always ambiguous. Not necessarily ambiguous … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. This presence is always changing. I don’t want to say “ambiguous” because, when you feel it, you feel it sometimes in a very particular way and you don’t have any ambiguity about it. But the next time, or the next day, you might think about this same person and you might feel it differently but with the same intensity. So it’s not ambiguity, but rather changing perception instead of clearly defined character.
MLC: Aspects of what you say remind me of Robert Bresson.
CR: Yes, definitely. What I’m saying is not an original idea of mine. It is Bresson who systematised this process. He didn’t invent it either, but he was the one who theorised it, so he has the credit for it and that’s good. He did use a similar method to mine except for one thing. He said to his actors just one thing: “Be neutral.” And this is not what I want. What I want them to be is whatever they are. And this is different. An example: I ask them to look out of the window. If they were smiling, Bresson would say, “Stop smiling and look straight and be neutral.” I would leave them smiling. And this is the difference. And this is why, in my personal perception, when you see Bresson’s characters – especially in his last films, when he was rigorously applying his methods – they are all very, very similar. They are like robots, because they are only, as he accurately said, models for his ideas, which I find very, very interesting.
I try to do something similar but, at the same time, I try not to kill the individual energy of each of the human beings representing the characters. In the end, I believe my characters are more lively and more individual. And this is why the woman in Japón has this lovely personality and Ana has her own and Marcos has his own, and they all have a very particular and distinctive personality. This is not thanks to me, but thanks to the fact that I let them emit their own energy.
MLC: Can you discuss the presence of religion in the film?
CR: I think there are two aspects to the religious aspect. There is spirituality, which I think is always underlying and always present, but only in a secondary degree. It’s only there as a will, as a hope, as a longing. And then there’s the ritualistic part of religion. And, in my opinion, people think this is a very Mexican film because of that. But I think this is only a ritual that we all have. Every different society in the world has the mechanisms for cleaning up consciousness. It’s just a ritual that helps you come back to yourself when you have done something that you feel is evil. And, in Mexico, this traditional system of society is going on these pilgrimages and asking for forgiveness. And this is something that Marcos does not feel very close to. But his wife manages to adapt very well to this system.
MLC: This functional approach to the idea of the healing potential of ritual, but not necessarily presupposing theism, brings Roberto Rossellini to mind.
CR: I don’t really know what Rossellini thought. I’ve never really read or heard him or anything. From watching his films, I feel some affinity in this regard, but I also think he feels closer to the actual healing power of these mechanisms, which I regard with much more distance. I feel closer to Marcos, and I think Rossellini would have felt closer to Marcos’ wife.