MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
To be completely honest with you, dear readers, I don’t always go into these MUBI Movies pieces knowing exactly what I’m getting into. Sometimes I have a history with a film that happens to be available on the service, but sometimes I just pick something that sounds interesting, and the fun in these blind selections is that I’ll almost always end up enjoying myself because MUBI’s catalog is interesting and varied enough that even films that didn’t work for me offer thematic depths worth analyzing. Battle in Heaven has turned out to be something of a conundrum for me, as I’m not sure I actually like the film itself very much, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it because it’s such a baffling auteur exercise by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas that just trying to parse out what he’s trying to say is fascinating.
The opening shot shows our protagonist Marcos (Marcos Hernández) receiving a rather explicit blowjob from a woman we’ll later come to know as Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz). This almost seems like a non-sequitur, though, as the film opens proper with Marcos learning from his wife (Bertha Ruiz) that the baby they had kidnapped for ransom has died. The majority of the film that follows is a slow, solemn meditation on Marcos’ feelings of guilt, and, oddly enough, how he wishes to expunge those feelings through sex with his boss’s daughter.
That daughter is Ana, and her father, a general, is unaware of Ana’s true profession in the sex trade or of Marcos’ enabling of that chosen profession. In combination with a ton of religious imagery that draws explicit parallels of Marcos and Ana with Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Marcos’ solemn meditations on his guilt come paired with the symbolically virginal forgiveness of a prostitute, and this is where the film becomes something of a strange thing to parse. At a surface level reading, Marcos is a reductively hopeless individual, completely stoic and largely unreadable, so our only clues to his inner torment are actions that suggest declining mental stability, such as giving in to a desire to cheat on his wife and abandoning a family outing to stand atop a mountain laden with crosses. His arc seeking redemption through Ana especially disservices her as a character, as she isn’t shown to have much of an internal life beyond her concern for Marcos and his need to assuage his guilt. These are archetypal characterizations that have elsewhere felt rote and even explicitly sexist, so it’s strange to see Marcos’ path to redemption played along such familiar beats with this much artistic pretention underlying the tone and presentation.
But there are also indications that Reygadas intends this film as satire, or self-parody, or just a very dark joke. Absurdist juxtapositions of obnoxious noise and serious drama permeate a film overly concerned with meditation and silence. The gravity of Marcos’ actions exists in a world that plods along regardless of his choices, and the sexual release he desires results in his limp acceptance of a sex worker simply doing her job. A third act twist completely upends Marcos’ redemptive arc, toying with the idea of further Catholic redemption even as one’s sins become more numerous. It’s hard to tell whether Reygadas wants us to be in on the joke or whether he’s laughing at us for reading too much into his bizarrely obtuse character study.
This is why Battle in Heaven feels like such a strange thing for me to recommend. The film is either symbolically oversaturated and thematically hollow, or it is purposely dense and hostile to audience interpretation. It’s a film that actively requires meditation on the part of the viewer, but that meditation likely cannot lead to satisfactory answers about what the film is trying to say. It defies empirical judgments of quality and simply is. So while I’m really not sure that Battle in Heaven is a great film, it does make for a great brainteaser.