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This is the sad story of this reviewer's first phone interview with an actor. I was approached by Tartan USA to interview actress Anapola Mushkadiz, and though I had no experience in the area, I grudgingly accepted the challenge. I received Carlos Reygadas' film, Battle in Heaven, two days before I was scheduled to talk with its lead actress. I watched the film and did as any good 'journalist' would do; I took notes and wrote out a bevy of questions.

Battle in Heaven
Then I watched the interview on the DVD, and proceeded to cross about half the questions off my list. I knew I was going to be the last of God knows how many interviewers to ask Ms. Mushkadiz questions, and I wanted to do my best to pose a few original queries. I know; I'm such an idealist. My reasonable list of questions was reduced to a sad collection of trite rubble and scraps. I could only hope they would sound better when I spoke them.

The fateful day arrived, and because I had miscalculated the time difference between Minnesota and California, the phone rang an hour before I had expected it to. It was ok though, I was more or less ready. I set up the speakerphone and tape recorder and shoot away.

Now I like to think of myself as a relatively charming guy in person, and have never had a problem with navigating difficult job interviews or speaking in public, I was even in a band for years. Apparently, over the phone I'm about as charming as a gastro-intestinal disorder. The questions dribbled from the back of my throat like post-vomitus bile, with all the grace of a near-sighted, three-legged bull terrier on crystal meth. Ana did her best to deal with me, even when I posed the ne plus ultra of my collection—"Were the tattoos you had in the film real?". Apparently they are.

When finished I awkwardly said goodbye and rushed to the shower in the hopes of cleansing myself of my utter disgust with myself. It didn't work. I sat down with my brand new tape recorder I'd bought specifically for this peregrination, and pushed play. I cringed first at my own voice, and then at the fact that I couldn't hear Ana's. Her charming, Spanish accented purr had been replaced with a whisper overwhelmed by the buzz of the recorder itself. Not only had I flubbed my interview, but now I had no record of the other side of my conversation.

Battle in Heaven

Feature


Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), is the middle-aged chauffeur (and dude who watches the flag ceremony every morning apparently) of Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), daughter of a Mexican general. Marcos is the only member of Ana’s household who knows she leads a double life. Although a child of Mexico’s political elite, Ana amuses herself by working as a prostitute in a high-end brothel. But, Marcos also has a secret. He and his wife (Berta Ruiz) have kidnapped a baby for ransom and the infant has died in their custody. He confesses to Ana, who urges Marcos to turn himself in.

Battle in Heaven could understatedly be referred to as not everyone's cup of tea. The narrative and dialogue is second to the images, which are not what one would refer to as conventionally 'interesting' ones. Contained with-in this challenging, and wholly unorthodox feature are graphic scenes of real-life, non-erotic sex. If this description hasn't turned you off to the film completely, then perhaps you'll want to see it some day.

Common knowledge will tell you that Battle in Heaven is a film that sharply divides audiences and critics. It seems that no one wants to call it anything less than a masterpiece or anything more than a worthless pile of dreck. Much to my surprise, I was lukewarm on the film. I appreciated it artistically, and was mesmerized by some of its slowly plodding imagery, but I found myself somewhat unmoved by the time the end credits rolled.

Battle in Heaven
When I asked Ana what filmmakers excited her one of her responses was Jim Jarmusch. I thought to myself, "How perfect is that?” Battle in Heaven is very comparable to Jarmusch's slowly paced, slightly cock-eyed, punk rock cinema, with its appreciation of silence and reality. Jarmusch is less of a showman with the camera and more of a wordsmith than Reygadas, but the two are somewhat kindred spirits.

On the DVD interview, it is revealed that Reygadas recruited his actors without a script. I was surprised a young director could manage to score such talent on his sophomore film, until of course, I remembered that all the actors involved were all amateurs. I asked Mushkadiz if she ever saw a script, even after signing onto the project. She said she never saw a script. Anyone who has seen the film knows that this feels right, and that any scripted set-ups would probably seem especially out of place.

The meandering, lazy river plotline made me wonder what the script looked like. According to the DVD's interview with Reygadas, he had no script to show his non-actors. When I questioned Mushkadiz, she stated that she didn't see a script during the filming of the movie either. This anti-focus seems to propel the film, and can also be seen in Reygadas' début film, Japón. Japón is the tale of a middle aged Mexican man that wonders into the Mexican wilderness to kill himself. The film also contains studious shots of seemingly nothing, and has a frank outlook on sex.

Japón is a longer film than Battle in Heaven, and though its imagery is much more beautiful (the shots of rain hitting rocks in the Sonoran desert really took me back to my childhood, I could almost feel them), the run time slides the film into the realm of boring. It's a curious trade-off. The irony is that Japón is the more assuredly directed of the two films. It feels assured, whereas Battle in Heaven feels dictated by its performers.

Battle in Heaven
Battle in Heaven, with its tale of the spiritual redemption of a troubled everyman also brings to mind Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and more specifically, Able Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. This comparison becomes clearer by the end of the film, but the seeds of underlying darkness are planted early enough, when it is announced that Marcos and his wife have kidnapped a baby and allowed it to die in their custody. Marcos's character initially seems aloof, and possibly slightly mentally retarded. In the end we realize how tormented he is, and the parting shot of the film verges on heartbreaking, though some viewers would probably rather describe it as disgusting.

I avoided asking Mushkadiz questions about the film's frank depiction of sex, because it seems to be the most common query—and because I'm kind of a coward. Personally, I didn't find the procreation scenes that shocking, and even though I'd rather see beautiful people nude than overweight, aging people, the fact that the scenes weren't shot to be erotic made them tolerable. I also took a lot of 'life drawing' classes in college, so perhaps I'm more use to looking at the less attractive bodies as 'artistic objects' than most people. The sex is incidental in the end, which makes the controversy-focused campaign behind the film misleading. Yes, viewers will get to see unsimulated scenes of fellatio, fully nude sex, and a close-up of the female nether region, but those expecting porn will most likely want to look elsewhere.

Video


It appears that Battle in Heaven was shot on some kind of digital video, because it suffers from the high contrast issues that are usually associated with the format. The image is very detailed, which coupled with the high contrast produces some edge enhancement. These minor troubles are most relevant during sequences played out in harsh daylight. Daytime interiors are the greatest offenders.

Battle in Heaven
For the most part, grain is at a minimum, but image edges are occasionally stricken with digital artefacts and noise. This can be seen pretty clearly in my screen caps. Whether this was a compression issue, or an issue with the source material is the question. I'm guessing that based on the overall feeling of the film, this was the way Reygadas filmed it.

Audio


The minimalist approach taken by Reygadas bleeds into the soundtrack, which mostly consists of the sounds of Mexico City. There is a musical score, and a hard driven one at that, but for the most part we are introduced solely to the sound of air. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are more or less identical, both producing a fair amount of surround ambiance without ever overstepping their creative boundaries. Dialogue is centred and clear, if not a bit on the tinny side. The surround tracks almost prove entirely unnecessary, but are welcome edition.

One question I forgot to ask Mushkadiz was her take on the post-mortem coda. In it church bells are rung without sound. It's not only that the bells are not ringing, but all other sound is normal. This was obviously a conscious decision, and personally I am unclear on its meaning.

Extras


Ana is not too fond of the US DVD cover art, which artificially covers her bare breasts with digital hair extensions, and I don't blame her. She said she understood the need, as US video stores are pretty unlikely to be willing to display nudity on their product boxes (porn shops not withstanding). I think it's kind of sad myself.

Battle in Heaven
The features on this neutered DVD basically boil down to one big interview. This long segment manages to answer pretty much every question I had after watching the film (as I've stated earlier). Reygadas really is mostly in charge of the session, but Ana is asked some pertinent questions, which she answers honestly and thoughtfully. Usually when she's finished speaking—or sometimes before she's finished—Reygadas adds his two or three cents. The only question the interviewer doesn't ask that I honestly wanted to know the answer to was whether Ana had any up coming projects. She told me she would be seen in movies filming in both Greece and Spain in the near future.

Included on this DVD are a few scenes from Reygadas' aforementioned first film, Japón. These give a nice taste of the picture, and I'm sure those who've enjoyed their Battle in Heaven experience will want to see Japón as well. Though longer and somewhat slower than Battle in Heaven, Japón has a more linear plot line, which may make it more accessible to less adventurous viewers.

This disc is finished off with a trailer for the title film, along with a few other Tartan release trailers.

Battle in Heaven

Overall


At one point during my viewing of Battle in Heaven I had to pause the film, and inadvertently turned off the subtitle track. When I came back the film played for several minutes, with dialogue, before I noticed the on screen text was missing. I had understood the film without understanding the language. I posed this to Mushkadiz, who eloquently stated that this sounded like the film Reygadas had set out to make. Unfortunately, my tape player sucks, and I've forgotten exactly what she said. Also, Cinco de Mayo really isn't a very big deal in Mexico, just as I had suspected.


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