Just when you thought there might be little or nothing new under the projector-beam sun, Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven ker-blams into town, discombobulating the small thinkers and smiting the wicked. It’s a movie and a half, teeming with insidious visual ideas and a fearless moral equilibrium—which, on the face of it, could easily be mistaken for outrageous exploitation. The Mexican counterpart, in a sense, to both Catherine Breillat and Tsai Ming-liang, Reygadas is his industry’s under-40 fire-starter, and his debut, Japón (2002), however demanding and scandalizing, may’ve been only a foretaste of what’s to come. Battle in Heaven, as ambitious as its title, is a living mystery, already notorious for hardcore-osity but so serious about its formal intelligence and so deep-dish in its evocations of inexpressible desolation, personal and social, that it occupies your skull like a siege of Huns.
The first, abstractly shot blowjob is, we discover later, a daydream of sorts, and the girl’s tears, suggesting a drama of exploitation ahead, prove to be irrelevant. The fat dick belongs to Marcos (Marcos Hernández), a middle-aged, potbellied driver for a military general in Mexico City; the mouth belongs to Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz, a 19-year-old Phoebe Cates type with dreads), the unseen general’s independent demi-whore daughter. John Tavener’s cosmically aching score presages the slow drip of clues: Marcos gets a cell call on the job. A baby has died, but whose? Marcos meets his obese wife (Bertha Ruiz) in the subway corridor where she sells clocks and jelly on a blanket; they barely talk, watching the passersby and rifle-bearing soldiers. But something has gone terribly wrong. In fact, a crime the particulars of which we can only surmise begins at this moment to poison the film, and Marcos.
Reygadas has said that narrative is merely a market-required pretext for making a film, and his challenging method for invoking inner states is as elusive as the story. From the first sequence (when the camera somehow moves into a frontal close-up of Ana in mid-suck), Battle in Heaven is a tango of unstable perspectives. Time and again, a single shot begins as a character’s point of view (like Marcos’s, looking through the windshield), and then imperceptibly transforms into something else altogether. The soundtrack ebbs and flows as well, and the net effect is a profound but almost philosophical sense of unease, not programmed for our visceral participation but as guidance at a remove.
To us Marcos is virtually a somnambulist, but even the narcissistic Ana notices that his tectonic plates have shifted out of place. Their eventual coitus, authentic and rueful (all of the actors are non-pro), may be the film’s semi-disclosing coup de grace: In a maestro camera move that backslaps Hitchcock and De Palma, Reygadas pan-dollies away from the rutting couple and out the window 360 degrees, picking up conversations in the surrounding neighborhood before returning to their prone forms, their issues unresolved. Even then, the filmmaker is aware of our movie reflexes, supplementing an unexpected holding of hands with the suspense of watching Hernández’s cock slowly droop from its erection.
The boiling magma of the movie—Marcos’s internal guilt-rot—remains withheld, but its breathtaking tension builds from our dawning awareness, and from the catatonic opera of sex-escape and cultural-redemption hunger whipped up around Marcos’s dilemma. Signs and wonders multiply; we watch a tree as its noisy flock of birds converses with another farther away, and then, ominously, falls silent. The film’s relationship with a national state of the soul is tangential but crucial—like Caché‘s—while Mexico’s surreal approach to Christian iconography is seen freshly, down to the climactic set piece shot amid an actual pilgrimage of thousands at the Basilica of Guadalupe. Promiscuously inhabiting several planes at once, Reygadas’s restless inquisition may already be this year’s movie to beat.