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Not Your Usual Sex Movie

'Battle in Heaven' is a messy war of the flesh.

By Dorothy Woodend 28 Apr 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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As soon as art and sex start playing together, someone's going to lose an eye, or a penis, or even their life and then it's tears all round. So why does this happiest of human activities end up so badly for anyone in a serious film? Since porn seemingly has the opposite ethos of art -- everybody goes home happy, only to come again soon -- it's an odd combination. But auteurs have been messing about with sex for a long while and show no signs of ceasing and desisting. The combination of sex and art is like two dogs in the street, you don't want to look, but somehow, you can't look away.

Witness the spectacle that is Carlos Reygadas' new film Battle in Heaven. After a minor scandal at Cannes last year, which Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson summed up as "dismissed by many as a pretentious, insufferable spit in the crotch of the bourgeoisie. I, for one, disagree, as its lunatic, Herzog-inspired Latin Catholicism awash in oompah-bombast ritual made for a spiritual renewal..." (The man has a way with words, or perhaps, has his way with words.)

This Battle begins with a blowjob followed by tears. (Isn't that always the way?) It is the first thing you see in the film. Even if you know what's coming, it is still something of a shock to see a large, hairy man being fellated by a young girl. In the clinical setting of a bare room, the camera wanders slowly and deliberately over both bodies. But there is a detachment that disallows judgment. The gentleness of this act is the most shocking thing about this scene. Is it holy or profane, is the question the film seems to ask over and over again and the answer keeps changing. The naked man is Marcos, and he is a driver for Ana, his bosses' daughter. They are from two radically different worlds, separated by money, class, age and arguably skin tone. But momentarily, they inhabit a world that is bonded by secrets.

Brothel 'boutique'

One scene cuts into the next, and the sound of Tavener's thick, rich orchestral score spilling over everything like honey, is subsumed by the tinny sound of a military band, rattling snare drums and screeching horns. This is the first indication that this opening act was perhaps only taking place in one character's brain. In the dark before sunrise, Marcos is following along behind the army as the Mexican flag is unfurled. The beeping of his cell phone interrupts the music and a two minute conversation on the phone sketches out all the plot elements for the remainder of the film. Marcos and his wife have kidnapped a baby, ostensibly for money, and the baby has died. The military march morphs into a flat, electronic beeping; at first you think you're in a hospital, but it is a subway tunnel where the pair sells cheap clocks (made in Taiwan) and puddings.

The de-evolution from glorious music to the digital noise (like so many tiny daggers in your brain) is complete, as is a transition from fantasy to the grossly mundane. Is this what the movement of history is? Meaningless death, cheap goods and sad faces in the metro "like petals on a wet black bough"? Since this is a film obsessed with dichotomy, it is and it isn't, all at the same time.

The sense of opposites is paralleled by the nature of the film's construction. The camera moves in and out, a seemingly independent consciousness, spiraling out to look upon the world and the wealth of human interactions, before returning like a falcon to the falconer. As Marcos and his wife exchange poe-faced remarks about a dead child, the camera focuses on passing people and the sounds they make -- the wet slosh of pee in a catheter bag from an old man walking by, or a mother yelling at her child; snatching him by the arm and forcing him almost off his feet. Every instance is given close attention. It is like those terrible moments in life during which you are riveted by the pattern of stones, or a patch of grass, as if focusing on tiny details is a means to hold on while the world spins on its axis.

The characters move numbly forward like sleepwalkers and we move with them. Marcos leaves to go and pick up Ana at the airport. It is an ordinary journey through the subway station, sounds emerge, then fade away. People glance back at the camera, as if they don't realize they're being filmed. But just as the viewer is settling into the padding tiger rhythms of the steadicam moving forward, something disrupts the momentum. Marcos stumbles, drops his glasses and they break. It is a tiny moment, but something about the smashed glasses lying on the ground is tragic. One small break. One small life gone.

At the airport, Marcos fetches Ana and drives her to the 'boutique', which is not a store, but a brothel where she whores for kicks, and, theoretically, money, as well. Here, too, sound plays a central role. As Ana talks on the phone to her boyfriend, her graveled voice is all we hear. The noise of traffic fades and Marcos seems to enter some sort of fugue state. To make him feel better, Ana offers to take him to the boutique and set him up with one of her friends. This act of what could be called generosity, in some circles at least, ends with Marcos and Ana again in a bare room. Despite the fact that she treats him more like the family dog than a man, or maybe because of this, Marcos confesses his crime to her. After a long, close look at his fraying undershirt, Ana tells him to turn himself in to the police and sends him home. It is within these quieter scenes, that real depth of the narrative takes place.


Although the film gained notoriety for its sex scenes (the veracity of which gave Cannes such a start) it is the fact that the people performing them are not professional actors, but ordinary people that gives them such a frisson. Ana, a dread-headed hippy beauty with tattoos and piercings is supposedly a member of the Mexican social elite, while Marcos is exactly what he plays in the film, a driver.

The nebulous border between real and unreal is crossed and all the audience can do is watch. Despite the unpleasant looking sex, there is something about these scenes that is strangely moving. As Ana and Marcos hump wanly on a bed, the camera spirals out and around, looking at workmen taking down an old TV antennae, kids riding their bikes, trees, before returning once more to the bedroom where the lovers lie side by side, holding hands. One hand is folded inside another. The moment is one of utter tenderness, very unlike the more prosaic reality of Marcos masturbating to a soccer game or he and his large wife rutting like beasts, while a picture of a pierced and bleeding Jesus looks on (which is more symbolism than is perhaps healthy or wise.) Blunt reality keeps intruding. As Marcos waits for Ana one morning, the slow movement of early sunlight across his face creates an instance of potential beatitude, an instant that is interrupted by a car of rich boys and girls coming home drunk. While the men piss all over the luggage that their maids come and collect, two little girls greet Marcos with "good morning fatso." Mortification of the flesh, whether it's the wet smack of sweaty buttocks or Ana's delicate pout pierced by a metal ring, keep reemerging to destroy these fragile moments of grace.

Even in the country, brute noise and chaos are everywhere. Marcos and family, along with the mother of the dead child, head to the country, but there is no escape there, either. As a low lying cloud washes over him, Marcos stumbles away from his screaming family, and a roaring, belching tractor, to emerge from the fog on a mountain top covered with crosses. The scene could almost be funny, with its over-the-top symbolism, yet it is not. Marcos covers his face with his hands, and for a moment, all the excess falls away. This is a lost soul. And as he looks out over the landscape, the roaming perspective is like an eye cut loose from its mooring. It's like Yeats' famous lines come to visual life -- "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Body and soul

Curiously enough, the film reminded me of the French film Kings and Queens which also played recently at the Vancity Theatre. Although the two films are very different, both depict tragedy and passion with a curiously cool detachment. Whether this is a means of escaping the hysteria of religion, or art, or melodrama, or the only way that we can look at human suffering, the intent ultimately seems more humanist than anything else. Rather than offering any interpretation, it seems more a method of simply depicting. The actors, precisely because they are not actors, and the mixture of the real with narrative, creates a sense that we are all creatures of fantasy, whether those fantasies are pornographic or religious in fervour. The film's final sequence, shot in a real life procession honouring the Virgin Guadalupe, drives this notion deep.

Among the film's ongoing parallels -- the city and the country, the sacred and the profane, the fat and the thin, the old and the young, the beautiful and the ugly -- none are as all consuming as the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. The battle between body and the soul that Catholicism is predicated upon is the split that the film tries to resolve. But it is irresolvable. The degradation of the flesh is gross, whether it's peeing on yourself, stabbing someone, or rutting like a beast of the field, fluids are constantly coming out of bodies. How then to redeem such grossness? The Catholic Church recommends the use of scourge. You must suffer to be redeemed, and sometimes that is all humans can do, crawl forward, as Marcos does, on his knees, his pants sloughing down. By the end of the film, there is nothing left. His face has been replaced by a dirty blue sack, placed on his head by another pilgrim.

But the film doesn't end with the divine retribution, nor even plain old police justice, but back where it began in a bare room with a beautiful girl. Perhaps this is heaven. Pure and still. The reality of suffering, fat, sagging bodies, and the fantasy of divine forgiveness is what the film is perhaps finally implying. Love, profane or sacred, it is all the same thing.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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