If you haven't already heard, there is some graphic sex in Battle in Heaven. Chances are that if you haven't heard this, then you haven't heard anything about the film at all. There are certainly other things to discuss, but with an opening featuring hardcore fellatio it becomes difficult to ignore the prominence of its sexuality.
I would like nothing more than to focus on the story or the metaphoric representations that lie beneath it, but the
fact of the matter is Battle in Heaven, like other blighted films before it, will only be remembered for
its disturbing sex scenes. Though they serve a point, they are a distraction. Unfortunately eroticism in
cinema continues to unfairly overshadow every other aspect of a movie in which it is used.
Eroticism might not be the right word for Battle in Heaven. Each sex scene — including the introductory oral sequence, which has an attractive young woman going down on an overweight, middle-aged man, as well as a very unwelcome moment between this same man and his even more obese wife — falls somewhere outside both the fantasized realism of pornography and the fantastic romanticism of Hollywood lovemaking. The film has some of the least sexy sex put on the big screen. So, if you're drawn to the theater for a turn on, this is probably not for you.
Battle in Heaven is also the wrong choice for true intellectual moviegoers. Easily interpreted for its deep allegories of Mexican social issues, it is a film only to be appreciated by pretentious critics who forgive narrative vacancy for their own ephemeral decipherment. I've read the obvious analysis of the class difference between the giver and the receiver of the blow job, of the visual analogy of penis to flag, and of the pointed contrast among the sex scenes, but no amount of thoughtful dissection can make up for the unpleasant, uncomfortable and unnecessary experience of actually sitting through the thing.
In addition to the scenes of paired intercourse, there is an excessive, though thankfully less graphic, incident in which the man masturbates to a televised soccer game. Later a character pisses his pants; another character is crudely stabbed. Hardly a minute goes by without something you'd rather not see. To top it off, the film seems to intentionally irritate the ears as much as the eyes, with aggravating noise from alarm clocks, tractors and a horribly loud car stereo.
Still interested to know the plot? Fortunately, there is some semblance of a tale being told for those brave enough to endure all else for one. Much of it happens off screen, however. We only learn through dialogue that Marcos (Marcos Hernández) and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) kidnapped a baby and that the child has died in their captivity. What is visible is the assumedly remorseful descent of Marcos from the instant he learns of the death to his redemptive pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe. During this time he also has a fling with Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the daughter of his boss, as he's being paid to chauffer her around.
I have no problem with the inclusion of sex scenes in movies, or who is featured in them, but I do find them rather boring, regardless of how explicit they may be. Those in Battle in Heaven are as direct as they come outside of the porn industry. In fact, nearly every sex act depicted in the film is actually taking place. Carlos Reygadas, the director, insists on the practice of having his cast genuinely engage in everything their respective characters do, whether it be eating a sandwich or copulating with a fellow actor, as long as the act is legally allowable. This would explain why the stabbing is so awkward and laughable.
But his theory against simulation is flawed, and film never necessitates such realism. The audience doesn't care if an actor is actually eating a sandwich or doing anything else depicted on screen, as long as it conveys legitimacy. Because of the way films are made, many times the action is not genuine. Actors are rarely driving cars, or snorting cocaine or scoring touchdowns. More importantly, actors are not meant to assume their roles so intimately.
Then again the featured players in Battle in Heaven are not actors. Marcos Hernández is really the driver for Reygadas' father. Bertha Ruiz actually sells jelly in metro stations, as her character does in the film. She isn't married to Hernández in real life, though. The woman who holds that honor refused to appear in the film. By using non-actors, Reygadas avoids making the completely melodramatic farce it could be, but he also gets little expression from his ensemble. Marcos goes through the film so lifelessly, a coat rack with a phallus could have been an adequate substitute.
This emotive desolation works in contradiction to other statements Reygadas has made about the overtness of the sex in his film. It is about the internal aspects, not the external, according to his belief, and perhaps Hernández' passivity is the point. It just seems like such an easy attitude to communicate throughout, especially since the other characters are similarly blank.
My biggest problem with the director's treatment of the sex in his film is its relativity in the discussion of what is appropriate for actors to carry out as opposed to simulate. The line is drawn, Reygadas says, when an action hurts another person involved, but he seems to limit his understanding of the emotional effects of these specific deeds. Hernández's real-life spouse is supposedly such a jealous woman that he could not even receive phone calls from female crewmembers at home. She is also supposedly unaware of the real sex going on in the film and would be hurt if she were to find out. Surely not as injured as being stabbed or physically harmed in some other way, but still hurt. I don't actually care if she becomes aware — I can't even believe that such an uninformed innocence is possible — or if the couple is divorced as a result of the film. I'm not even concerned with Reygadas' insensitivity. It is the inattention given to his ideas about his own art that is more offensive than anything literally visible on screen.
Battle in Heaven is a detestable film. It not only is annoying to watch, but it is even more annoying to think about. While most disagreeable film experiences are shaken off and forgotten, this one resonates for your lasting discomfort. It is one movie you'll actually completely regret going to.