The Mexican director Carlos Reygadas caused quite a stir with his 2002 feature, Japón, in which a suicidal man falls for an older woman. Its meditative mood and embrace of aged sex singled it out from such slinky-assed Mexican flicks as Amores Perros and Y tu Mama También. His follow-up is saucier, sure, but similarly humane and searching, locating its near-religious tale of guilt and penitence in flawed human flesh and the economic extremes of Mexico City.
Battle opens with a young woman giving a fleshy older man a blow-job, but it isn’t prurient. Reygadas finds tenderness in touching, so when Marcos and his overweight wife make love, the human connection registers before their bulk; enhanced by an of-the-moment post-coital chat about Marcos’ glasses. Reygadas’ style works like that: he explores abstractions through the physical immediacies of incident and intimacy. Hence his use of non-professional actors (who – particularly Hernández – appear impervious before the camera) and his forensic study of life after a tragedy.
Not that Battle’s near-improvisatory methods are artless. Reygadas takes his inspiration from arthouse titans like Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson and applies it to the details of life in Mexico City with a mix of grandeur and near-documentary veracity. He uses epic long shots to seamlessly shift from intense, claustrophobic guilt to scenes of urban mayhem, all enhanced by a sweeping classical/pop soundtrack. When Marcos embarks on a mountain walk, the hypnotic imagery is transcendent; when he crawls on his knees at a religious pilgrimage, the impact is harrowing. The slow-burning results may feel elusive, but they’re also genuinely searching, stretching and contemplative.
Like Japón, Battle doesn’t bend to expectation or buckle to easy endings. It confirms Reygadas as a daring, individual talent.
Reygadas' hymnal allegory for guilt requires a leap of faith, but its bold, brave commitment to humanity-laid-bare hits hard and true.