Gearing up for my trip there, I’ve sought out every artistic depiction of Mexico City I can. If you want an unvarnished image, this would be it, although neither does it make the usual D.F. dystopian move and go overboard with the chaos. (“It’s really not Man on Fire there,” a director friend who often goes there recently explained to me.) The city does feel more than a little ominous through Reygadas’ eyes — even the highway-spanning “CIUDAD DE MÉXICO” sign the protagonist drives under feels like a portent of doom — but the man seems fascinated, above all, by human grotesquerie, though I don’t think he himself considers it that. From a distance, the movie looks like a parade of the obese, the infirm, the nihilistic, the militaristic, and the tethered-to-bags-of-urine.
In an interview in BOMB, Reygadas mentions the common accusation of Battle in Heaven as just “monstrous people making love.” Though two of these people kidnap a baby and one sells herself out of sheer manipulative boredom, “monstrous” remains open to interpretation. I do admit no small interest in the way Reygadas sees his characters making love — or in the way Reygadas sees anything. Like all my favorite filmmakers, he uses the story — in this case, the story of the ultimately botched kidnapping — as little more than a framework for personality and sense experience: a surreal field of passengers passing through a subway station, a fanatical religious procession through the streets of Mexico City, Bach blaring at a gas station, and, yes, sexual relations among the dreadlocked and the severely overweight. From the same interview:
Some people think that my films lack plots—they don’t, it’s just that for me the plot is a skeleton from which things are hung, and not the whole point of a film. When people talk about a film being “a good story” they don’t get it. The story is there so everything else can be structured around it. The Surrender of Breda by Velásquez is famous not because of the story; it’s much more interesting to read about it in a history book. It’s about how it’s painted. The same can be said about Rubens’s paintings of mythological figures. So when writing Silent Light (I’m talking about it simply because it’s my more recent film), I had in mind a character who causes his wife so much pain that she dies. I, more or less, had imagined who he was, where he lived, but had avoided describing what he looked like because I wanted the human being I encountered at a given moment to fill in that part. I’m often asked about how I cast people. It’s very simple; there’s no technique. It’s as if someone asked me how I go about liking a woman. There’s no science to it. You’ve had certain experiences in life that have determined your personality, and so you simply see a woman you like, and know that you like her, you don’t need to rationalize it.