I'm glad to see that a number of film bloggers have included Carlos Reygadas' film Battle in Heaven in their year-end wrap-ups (see the lists from Acquarello and Filmbrain, for instance). And if you dip into the blogosphere's archives you'll find that a few others (like Long Pauses) were ahead of the curve and included it in their lists last year. Reygadas' meticulous framing and world-in-a-bubble approach to sound design grabbed me immediately, especially since he accomplished this surgical precision with uncomfortable, non-professional actors and almost no plot, and although I'm sure the film won't have broad appeal, I'm not surprised that it stuck in the minds of the few people who saw it.
Nearly every minute of the movie revolves around a man named Marcos. The baby that he and his wife kidnapped for extra cash died while it was in their care, but instead of filling in the back story, the film follows Marcos from within his consciousness as he's tugged in different directions by competing loyalties to family, faith, and country. It's a tricky stasis for many people, but here the guy-wires are cranked even tighter by the senseless tragedy, as if to find out which one will snap.
Most of the mainstream commentary written about the film as it played at festivals in 2005 and 2006 focused on the explicit, unglamorous sex or the controversies that arose from it. At Sundance, for example, where films often play at unconventional venues and makeshift theaters because of the town's scarce film resources, Battle in Heaven was scheduled to play at the local high school — in the building, that is, not for the students — until hackles where raised and the screening was moved, no doubt replaced by something entirely wholesome.
Readers following such reports might suspect that Reygadas set out to make waves, but when I talked with him in January '06 I found that he had strong feelings about using cinema to capture "bits of life" and seemed to care a great deal about his characters, intent on offering a more hopeful vision than you might guess.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation. Be aware: although we talked in detail about Battle in Heaven, the sex thing never came up. Fine with me; it's covered well enough elsewhere. So if you intend to read any further, put the kids to bed first. smirk
Robert Davis: So Carlos, I was somewhat surprised to hear that there are some autobiographical details in the movie, that Marcos— not the kidnapping necessarily— but that Marcos, who is a driver in the movie, was your father's driver. Is that right?
Carlos Reygadas: It's true, yes. My father worked for the Ministry of Culture for many years, and he [Marcos] is a functionary for the Ministry of Culture. So for a time he was driving for my father, for five years some twenty years ago. So everyone there is very— I mean a lot of the people and the things that happen are not directly autobiographical in the way that I have lived, but they are autobiographical in the way that it's my atmosphere, my world.
RD: Right. So how long has this movie been rolling around in your head?
CR: Well, in it's form— in it's actual form not a lot of time. I really wrote it down very quickly. I tend to write very rapidly, but the things, the issues the film deals with, they have existed since I was a little boy. I don't know, you know, like all this tension that you see in Mexico, it can be either religious and ritualistic tension on one side and there's the racial tension and the different classes tension and, well, a lot of questions that you can ask yourself when you live in that place or even if you go on a visit.
RD: In fact I love how you communicate that. You often show Marcos following other groups of people around as if he's sort of an outsider. We see him following a pack of soldiers but he's not in uniform, he's behind them, and we see him following Ana, the girl he drives around, at the airport but she's sort of in a haze — he's broken his glasses, can't see her very well — or there are pilgrims across the street who he sees from a distance. I think that's really cool. How do you— how do you communicate this really clear perspective to your collaborators? Do you storyboard?
CR: I do storyboard very precisely. And when I write the screenplay it is already a technical screenplay where I describe everything as I intend to shoot it, because I do, let's say, an inverse process. Instead of, like, thinking of a story and then making it filmic I think directly of a film, and that's the way I write, as if I was seeing a film and describing it. So I describe the color, the kind of texture you have, the lens and the music and the sound and the shots. That's how I learned, because maybe I didn't go to film school, so I went the other way around, and I actually — since the beginning — I write the film as I intend it to be, so it's very annoying actually for people funding the film for example to read all those technical things into the actual screenplay, so nowadays I have to hire someone who will transform my technical screenplay into a normal, let's say, narrative screenplay so it can be giving to collaborators and then funders since the beginning of the projects.
RD: Even though the narrative really is not the most important thing in this film, is it?
CR: Definitely not. I mean the whole thing— There I answered methodically, but if I answer conceptually I would say that it all comes to what I think cinema is for me. I'm not, like, interested in the idea of telling a story. For me, cinema is not telling a story. I'm much more interested in living from within someone. So I do have to give away some information so you know who you're going to— whom are you going to experience life through? Then I try to get into someone so you feel as some other human being could feel, and there you can feel empathy and you probably feel identified or non-identified but then you feel from inside, and that is for me like the most powerful thing you can try to do with cinema, and that's why I say it's much more connected with painting or music.
Music is not about telling a story, it's about feeling. You go to a concert, let's say a classical music concert. I mean you feel and then in the end you say whether you liked it or not, but nobody says, "What is it about?" or "I didn't understand it" or "I understood it." You just feel it. Same thing for— Maybe you go and listen to Bob Dylan. You either like him or not, and you feel, and that is what I think is the most beautiful thing about cinema and not only telling a story.