Battle in Heaven (18)

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The Independent Culture

Carlos Reygadas's film arrived in Cannes this year benefiting from - or burdened by - advance rumour that we could expect to be shocked. Reygadas certainly provides plentiful food for scandal: graphic sex (including a close-up blow-job in the very first minute), one startlingly abrupt act of violence, a lead actor of quite exceptional unsightliness, and lashings of Catholic agony.

The truly shocking thing, however, is that the story's single most disturbing element is passed over in near silence, as if it barely mattered. That is the kidnapping of a baby by a Mexico City couple; the crime has happened before the action starts, and we soon learn that the baby has died. But we never see the child, and its death is reported in a totally matter-of-fact way, and never referred to again, while the criminals are presented to us in a light that you could, more or less, call sympathetic - though, God knows, they hardly come across as likeable.

The conspirators are Marcos (Marcos Hernandez) and his wife (Berta Ruiz), about as charming a pair as Fred and Rosemary West - both massively corpulent and seemingly slow-witted. Marcos works for an army general: his main jobs, apparently, are to close the gate at a nightly flag-lowering ceremony, and to chauffeur the general's daughter Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), a wayward beauty with piercings and dreadlocks who moonlights in a brothel. Marcos lusts for Ana, and she knows it - a fact which becomes all the more unsettling when we learn that he used to drive her to school when she was little.

Reygadas made his name as an aesthetic adventurer and a hardcore provocateur with his first film Japón, a film I found both portentous and obnoxious, largely because of the sex scene in which the suicidal hero bends a rural grandmother into every position of the Kama Sutra.

It's arguable, though by no means certain, that Reygadas shows just as much contempt for his cast and characters in Battle: you can't help feeling that Marcos and his wife are on display as walrus people for our amazement. The film's cruellest trick on Hernandez is to cut from a naked Amazon-like hooker in the brothel to a stooped, embarrassed Marcos, shrivelled dick overhung by an outcrop of hairy flab. When Marcos gets to sleep with the sylphy Ana, Reygadas is surely out to dazzle us with the exotic strangeness of the juxtaposition, but he also does something truly extraordinary. The camera drifts away from the couple and executes a slow 360-degree drift out of the window and over the rooftops, while background noise - traffic, children playing, urban rumble - seems to incorporate the entire outside world into the events in the bedroom.

You might call Reygadas a surreal realist. The moments most concretely anchored to the pavement-level mundanity of Mexico City transcend themselves, crossing over into nervous hallucination: a sudden explosion of road rage, a long camera crawl through a crowded metro station, the semi-documentary footage of the city's annual pilgrimage to the Basilica, where you suddenly sense an entire city gripped by religious frenzy. Then there are all the film's sudden apparitions, ostensibly real but conceivably allegorical too, such as the figure glimpsed on the metro, sporting a devil mask as if it were everyday commuting wear.

To a degree, Battle in Heaven might seem like another warmed-over example of a familiar movie myth: a fairly repellent no-hoper redeemed by hot sex with a quasi-virginal prostitute. And it's finally hard to know whether Reygadas takes his transcendental, religious theme seriously, or is deriding it outright - or even deriding us for taking it seriously. Yet the film's out-and-out strangeness gives it an undeniable edge. Reygadas might be seen as an immature talent who doesn't know when to hold back; or, to extend the art analogy, he might be the Damien Hirst of Mexican cinema. One way or another, Battle in Heaven certainly grabs your attention. Sordid? Certainly. Crazy? More than somewhat. To be seen? For sure.