Although Carlos Reygadas' sophomore feature fits in just fine with the rest of his filmography, it’s still probably the most brutal & explosive thing he's done minus the last 10 minutes of Post Tenebras Lux where we see a man rip his own head off, followed by a scene of blood falling from the sky. Battle In Heaven is an excellent mixture of beauty (the camera work and the lead actress) & grittiness (unsimulated sex & blowjobs involving traditionally unattractive people and a brutal murder involving a machete). This was also his least Tarkovsky-influenced work which proved he could make a film without having to emulate and/or tip his hat to his idol like he does so often. If anything, Battle In Heaven is more of an homage to Bresson - besides the monotone performances from the non-professional actors (a key element in Bresson's cinema) Reygadas makes a direct reference to Bressons' Une Femme Douche in one scene...
Sophomore features can be quite important for an emerging filmmaker in the position Carlos Reygadas was in after the release of his first film (Japon). There's this pressure to deliver an equally great work. Japon was somewhat of a success in the art house world and I imagine people were expecting something just as great with his next feature. Battle In Heaven was released in the intimidating year of 2005 where veterans like Michael Haneke (Cache), Terrence Malick (The New World), Gus Van Sant (Last Days) and Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) all released some of their best work. 2005 also saw other important and/or modern day heavyweights like The Dardenne Brothers (The Child), David Cronenberg (A History Of Violence) and Lars Von Treir (Manderlay) release highly anticipated works that turned out to be just "ok", underwhelming or disappointing.
Like any Reygadas film, Battle In Heaven divided audiences. It’s one of those films people either passionately love or violently hate (I personally know folks on both sides of the fence). Nevertheless, Battle In Heaven still ended up on plenty Top 10 lists at the end of 2005 and some even consider it to be one of the best films of the last decade. I give Carlos Reygadas a lot of respect because he didn’t play it safe with his second feature. It would have been a lot easier to follow up Japon with a film like Silent Light (his third feature), which is still radical in its own way but not in the same explosive & gritty way as Battle In Heaven. Reygadas took a lot of risks with this film. Somehow he manages to make the most tasteless sounding scenarios seem intriguing & watchable. Battle In Heaven is almost intentionally alienating & off-putting and I love that...
Its [Battle In Heaven] my problem child, and therefore the film of mine I love the most - Carlos Reygadas
In Battle In Heaven we follow "Marcos" - A personal driver for a rich diplomat's daughter ("Anna"). Even though she doesn't need to, Anna works on the side as a "madame" or prostitute (its unclear) in a somewhat upscale brothel. Besides his job as a driver, Marcos is involved in a few other side hustles like; selling novelty items on the subway, picking berries on a farm and...kidnapping. As it turns out, Marcos and his wife were involved in the kidnapping of a baby for a ransom. And to make things worse, the baby died while in their custody and they have to figure out what to do (none of this info is a spoiler. you learn this early on). When pressure starts to build up inside of Marcos he feels the need to get things off his chest and he confides in Anna (whom Marcos is also in love with). Although Anna doesn’t tell anyone, she still advises him that the right thing to do is to confess and turn himself in.
For the rest of the film Marcos struggles internally with what to do and looks to a higher power for some kind of an answer.
The relationship between the two main characters is complex. Marcos sees Anna as somewhat of an angel, while Anna kind of pities Marcos and looks down on him. Marcos is sexually attracted to Anna, while Anna is not attracted to Marcos at all (even though she does have sex with him at one point). Anna seems more curious & intrigued by Marcos. The care that they have for one another is a bit imbalanced but at the end of the day Anna does genuinely care for him.
If you’re familiar with Reygadas’ work then you know he has quite a bit of Mexican pride (the presence of the Mexican flag is pretty heavy throughout this film). However, Battle In Heaven is one of the few cases where he expresses some criticism towards his homeland (at least that's what I see). Class & money are an underlying issue in Battle In Heaven and quite a few questions arise from this film – Is Carlos Reygadas trying to show sympathy for Marcos? Is he trying to say that if the economic & social state in Mexico wasn’t as corrupt & imbalanced that Marcos wouldn’t have to work three jobs and eventually resort to kidnapping just to get money?
It’s clear Reygadas gets off on posing questions and developing scenarios that will have people talking, debating & arguing for a long time.
Besides Reygadas’ talent for making tasteless things look...tasteful, he also has a talent for throwing religion in to his work without shoving it down our throats like Abel Ferrara or Terrence Malick. Reygadas doesn’t even show religion in the most subtle way either. There are many religious elements in Battle In Heaven like crosses, churches and we see Marcos giving himself up to god in the end. The last half hour of Battle In Heaven is pretty much all about god, faith, evangelism & redemption. The religioun factor in Battle In Heaven brings up even more questions - when you confess/own up to a crime (no matter how awful it is) and give yourself to god (for those that believe in God) does that absolve you of your sins? Can anyone really be “saved”? Battle In Heaven fits right alongside the cinema of Hal Hartley (specifically Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur & Henry Fool) as well as the cinema of Bruno Dumont (L’Humanite, Hors Satan & Hadweijch). All of these films deal with a lot of the same themes (redemption, forgiveness, religion, god, the struggle between what's right & wrong, etc) and the main characters in all of these films share the same qualities (mysterious loners with a spotty past who have all committed some kind of crime but are kind of likeable and have redeemable qualities)
As much as I love Battle In Heaven there's a few parts that I haven’t fully worked out in my head - the opening & closing scenes where Anna is giving Marcos a blowjob (is that supposed to represent “Heaven” for Marcos?), the scene where Marcos is masturbating with no emotion on his face while watching a soccer game on TV (I don’t really understand that one).
It’s obvious this film is told from Marcos' point of view but Carlos Reygadas takes it one step further in certain scenes by literally putting us inside Marcos' head and we see the world through his eyes like we did in Enter The Void or parts of Being John Malkovich. In one scene two girls walk up to the camera and speak directly to us/Marcos. In another scene we see Anna's true beauty through Marcos' eyes as she walks down the street in front of him and, just like the little girls in the previous scene, she address the camera directly as if she's talking to us/Marcos. These moments felt like a precursor to his latest film (Post Tenebras Lux) which is seen mostly through a distorted first person perspective.
Reygadas’ body of work has a cohesiveness & connection unlike most filmmakers working today. Along with Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, The Headless Woman) he’s probably the most important figure in Latin-American cinema at the moment (even if there is a hint of upper-class elitism in his work from time to time).