Carlos Reygadas' directorial debut, Japón, was a prime example of the "guy walks around" movie: that prevalent contemporary world-cinema genre that has melancholy loners wandering through bleak landscapes, frequently in real time. But Japón had a distinctive look and mordant wit that marked Reygadas as a director to watch, and even though his follow-up, Battle In Heaven, looks entirely different—trading Japón's jaundiced grain for a crystal-clear, fluorescent-lit Mexico City—it's so visually stunning that it's almost okay that Reygadas has lost his sense of humor. Battle In Heaven is doggedly sober, aside from one blackly comic scene, late in the film, where put-upon hero Marcos Hernández stands in a hallway and slowly, thoroughly wets his pants.
What's so funny about incontinence? Consider it the pathetic capper to all the other degradations that Hernández suffers in Battle In Heaven. The movie opens with a slow pan down his blobby naked body, which is being sexually serviced by pretty, aristocratic young prostitute Anapola Mushkadiz. Later, Hernández is seen masturbating to a soccer game and having doggie-style sex with his obese wife Bertha Ruiz. And in the film's most perversely beautiful scene, Reygadas lingers on a postcoital shot of Hernández losing his erection, followed by a close-up of Mushkadiz's razor-burned pubic area. After all that, what's a little piss?
Battle In Heaven takes place in the wake of a botched infant kidnapping by Hernández and Ruiz. The baby has died, and Hernández seeks solace in the arms of Mushkadiz, a general's daughter whom he drives to and from her secret job at a brothel. And that's pretty much it for the movie. Hernández goes looking for the right way to punish himself, Mushkadiz tries everything to help just short of loving him, and the narrative stalls in a series of obliquely meaningful scenes of ritualistic religious processions and flag-raisings, as well as one unfortunate stabbing.
Reygadas has a keen eye for geometric patterns, from the triangular shape of Mexico City streets to the way a giant Mexican flag bisects his frame, and he dots scenes with eye-popping extreme close-ups of edge-lit bare skin. Battle In Heaven is like a series of artful photographs, except that Reygadas also moves the camera in astonishing and unusual ways, swooping around the conventional x- and y-axes while teasing the audience with what he's about to show. He's got an astonishing technique. Here's hoping that someday he'll use it to make a movie.