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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
On the Plains of Heaven
by Donald Levit

Afterthought will be needed to decide if one likes Battle in Heaven, and most viewers will probably decide they don’t. The sexual acts and full-frontals of unlovely beyond-Fellini bodies are so dispassionately non-prurient that voyeurs and the liberated will find nothing to whet appetites; a few deaths and some little blood are either offscreen or otherwise removed, and the internal, deliberate pacing too slow for others. Nonetheless, writer-director-coproducer Carlos Reygadas’ second feature is a riveting work for anyone interested in the making of movies, how devices at the filmmaker’s disposal can be assembled to augment one another in a whole greater than the sum of individual parts.

Now in his mid-thirties, the London-educated former EU and Mexican diplomatic services lawyer is not concerned with external narrative, “unfortunately still a part of cinema I don’t know how to get around.” Needing, thus, a storyline linkage on which to hang his penetration of character, he turned to the booming big- and small-time business of kidnapping in his native Mexico, D.F. With his 2002 multiple-international-award-winning Japan/Japón, the result joins recent work by his countrymen in a surge of impressive films depicting urban realities, leaving behind a moribund once-prolific national output of unexportable comedies, overweight silver-masked wrestler-avengers, bauble-bedecked cowboys and hokey folklórico.

Unlike the childnapping in Tony Scott’s broken-backed pseudo-redemption actioner Man on Fire--actually a remake relocated from Italy -- the babynapping here has taken place before the scene which opens, closes (but with smiles) and sandwiches all. Indeed, the unforeseen accidental outcome of the crime has also occurred, is confusingly discussed (to be clarified later) in the first, clipped dialogue, and its inner consequences will form what is the essence of this story in which, because of the character and the style, little seems to happen but much does.

Even such expected linear conventions as motivation are left prior to or outside of the reach of the camera. The couplings are not mere libido, but are they the outgrowth of fifteen years’ subservience, of subliminal incestuous drive in one case, or youthful rebellion or curiosity for kicks in the other? And the pre-story crime (and catastrophe) -- a poorly thought-out plan for money, but why by rather bovine people who do not have any pressing need for pesos? The one unexpected killing we do see -- is it redemptive for one or both, an afterthought or perhaps, as no likes to consider, motiveless but forgiven or at least accepted by the victim?

This internal complexity, often in characters who appear simple to the world, is reinforced by the color-bleached camerawork of Diego Martínez Vignatti (who doubles as a Pumas Argentine soccer player named Vignatti): leisurely pans, overexposures, light and focus shifts, angle shots for Mantegna-like perspective and one magnificent deep focus to foreshorten the leaning woman and elongate the prone male body. A score that moves from military brass to modern to classical, and back, live or from car radios, crescendos and softens and is counterpointed to effective “offscreen sounds” of an approaching and departing tractor, clocks, traffic, disembodied sighs and creaking beds, marching MPs’ boots, half-heard scraps of conversations, mountain winds and furling flags, singing pilgrims, brazen bells and a sonorous hymn intoned to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Technique blends with the fast cuts of the story of meek bulbous-bellied chauffeur Marcos, played by real chauffeur Marcos Hernández, a laconic non-actor and “complete failure” in Japan. With loving Botero-figured wife Berta (darker-skinned non-actress Berta Ruiz, who sells sweets in the subway), who sells cakes and clocks in metro stations, he has committed a crime which turned out horribly and which he confesses only to Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz, found through casting auditions but not an actress). A general’s daughter and Marcos’ passenger since she was a schoolgirl, the nineteen-year-old woman semi-lives with Jaime (David Bornstein) but double-lifes as a prostitute in a high-end brothel.

In his “private security” jacket, Marcos drives the general to early flagraisings and sunset –lowerings, and the girl to Jaime’s and, unknown to all but himself, the brothel, where he desires only her and tells her of the botched kidnapping, thus binding the two of them in their mutually shared secrets. As thousands of pilgrims tramp three days to the national shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, she advises turning himself in. Making heavyweight conjugal love, he tells Berta, who asks for caution and waiting.

Sprinkled with a fine minor cast of real people who disappear -- subway riders, foul-mouthed cops in shorts and wrist-rubber bands, penitents, impossible occupants of white cars, road-rage drivers, school crossing guards, nurses pushing wheelchairs -- the drama reaches unexpected climax, and then back to the opening-closing frame. Meaning? -- conscience maybe, redemption possibly, but life certainly, awfully complex beneath the surface. 

Battle for Heaven is scheduled to be shown at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre on February 15 as part of "Film Comment Selects."

(Released by Tartan Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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