Carlos Reygadas has a vision, a resolutely Christian one both troubling and glorious, and the Mexican director has chosen to render it in images as provocative as any ever captured. Which has its price. The cynical will undoubtedly resort to classic adjectives of unthinking dismissal when confronted by his films: pretentious, sensationalist, pornographic. But as in his debut Japón, Reygadas’ latest, Battle In Heaven, defies such superficial recriminations to create something awkward, struggling, beautiful, groundbreaking. That is, mesmerizing filmmaking.
In class-stratified Mexico City, chauffeur Marcos (Marcos Hernández) has kidnapped a baby along with his wife (Bertha Ruiz) and unintentionally allowed it to die. Desperate beneath a somnambulant countenance, Marcos seeks spiritual refuge in a confiding-then-physical relationship with Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), a prostitute and the young daughter of the general he drives. Mundane premise, but it’s all in the how: Reygadas has mastered the epic tracking shot that continually transforms relations between engaged character and quotidian environment, and he uses it to astounding effect, as serpentine long takes are held in a dizzying dance with the film’s modulating sound design. The result is an impressionistic texture of tragedy: as bookended by the most ornate unsimulated blowjob in cinematic history (sorry, Vincent Gallo). Recalling Bruno Dumont (who also employs non-professionals to act out Bressonian tableaux), Reygadas’ lens obsessively frames flesh in its crudest mortifications — naked, sweating, pissing, prostrating, fucking — to seek rare sparks of transcendence. Like the pilgrimage forming the film’s central religious symbol, Reygadas envisions these base necessities as openings to salvation. That he does so with such grotesque brilliance and searing audacity is a miracle itself.
Opens February 17 at Angelika Film Center