“Battle in Heaven” – A.J. Hakari

It’s always a crapshoot whenever a filmmaker decides to leave words out of the storytelling process. The lack of spoken dialogue can make or break a movie by either boosting the somber atmosphere surrounding the relationship between characters (as with Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron) or highlighting a director’s all-around lazy approach to the plot (that’d be you, Gerry). Battle in Heaven, the new drama from Japon director Carlos Reygadas, is comprised of samples from both of these extremes, alternating between being a sad, observant, and introspective character study and a clunky, boring mess you want to end quickly.

 

With its rather frank opening scene, Battle in Heaven announces that it’s not going to be your typical drama. In a story with no real heroes or villains, the primary focus falls upon Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), a pudgy, middle-aged man stuck in a marriage to a very rotund wife (Berta Ruiz) and working as a security officer. He’s also the driver for Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the daughter of a Mexican general, who also works at a brothel. One day, Marcos confesses to Ana that he’s trying to figure out a way to deal with a secret: he and his wife recently kidnapped a baby who just turned up dead. Marcos’ gut reaction is to turn himself in, so over the next couple of days, he contemplates his situation, looking at the world around him and wondering whether he should try to live with the botched crime hanging over his head or confess once and for all.

 

With Battle in Heaven, Reygadas shows viewers not only what he can do (provide a number of scenes where silence speaks louder than words) but also what he can’t (sustain those scenes for a 90-minute running time). The DVD cover warns of graphic sexual content contained within the film, and indeed, there are a number of such up-front moments throughout (at least enough to make The Brown Bunnylook like a Disney production), but luckily for his audience, Reygadas is a filmmaker who’s able to shift attention away from the shock factor generated by the film’s more sexual elements and focus on their emotional significance. One can’t fault Reygadas for not taking his story seriously or for not wanting to strip his characters down to their barest, most primal inner feelings.

 

For much of Battle in Heaven’s time, Reygadas’ downplayed, quiet approach works perfectly, conveying the appropriately reflective atmosphere surrounding Marcos as he embarks on a quest for redemption and peace of mind. I enjoyed the way Marcos, played unevenly but mostly well by Hernandez, seemed to survey his surroundings, experiencing society at some of its harshest forms (road rage, domestic abuse) as a means of deciding whether or not it’s really worth remaining in the world he’s in, especially with the sort of burden he’s carrying around. The scenes he shares with Mushkadiz also ring with a forlorn sadness and add another layer of intrigue to Marcos’ moral quandry.

 

But for as much as Battle in Heaven succeeds while working with so little, it also falls into the trap of going on for a longer time than it should, turning up more than a few dry patches in the story where, literally, nothing happens. No advancement of the plot, no adding of complexities to the characters’ personalities — just the cinematic equivalent of dead air, dull, unconstructive moments that could have easily been removed from the film without damaging the great work that had previously been accomplished. Also, as previously mentioned, Herdandez’ performance hits a couple of rocky moments, especially in the scene where he confesses his crime to Ana, which is delivered with the emotional gusto of someone relieving himself of remembering not to rewind a tape before returning it to the video store. Numerous other characters share this tendency not to react in the most appropriate ways to the situations as they present themselves throughout the film; on more than one occasion, the actors deliver flat, emotionless turns that undermine the story’s power.

 

It’s tough to critique something like Battle in Heaven, because as a critic, I want to recommend the film for the sake of its more emotionally sincere and brave moments, but as a member of the moviegoing public, I can tell it’ll be too boring for most to sit through. In the end, the fact remains that this is one battle that will cause you to side with one extreme or the other.

 

Rating: ★★½☆

 

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