Toronto 2005 | Opening Day <i>Battle</i>

by twhalliii
September 9, 2005 5:10 AM
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Long day today. Very early to the airport only to have the flight delayed. Nice to see friends at the airport; it always makes the delays go more quickly. Arrived in Toronto and, passport in hand, breezed through customs and into Canada. A very quick cab ride into the city with friends, express check-in at my hotel, and I was off to TIFF Registration which took all of 35 seconds. Amazing! The most well-organized and efficient registration I have ever experienced. As a frequent festival attendee (and worker), it was a marvel. If everything in Canada is this smooth (universal healthcare, anyone?), well, sign me up.

Off to the Press and Industry Screenings, and I was just in time for a personally anticipated screening of The Brothers' Quay The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes, which, for me anyway, failed to deliver on the promise their legendary animated shorts. The film uses classic Quay techniques, but the story and especially the acting are so off-key and portentous that the film suffocates immediately under their weight. The Quays may be better served hand-crafting their wondrous animated devices and models (which play heavily in the film's visuals) than trying to sculpt performances from a wooden cast, script, and story.

Having some unexpected time on my hands, I was able to catch the beginning of another highly anticipated American independent film, only to have the print (digital tape... not quite there yet...) have a terrible sound problem which forced the screening to stop for a few blessed minutes, allowing me a moment to slip away before having to endure any more. I got word later that TIFF was sent a rough cut and the actual print arrived after the technical fiasco, much to the dismay of the film's producer. I can't imagine the film being bearable in any form, but the editing room is a magical place. I won't be giving another look here, however. And so, after a wonderful trip, my workday was suddenly a disaster. 0 for 2, I walked to the Royal Ontario Museum for a screening of a film I had been dying to see since I read about it during Cannes; Carlos Reygadas' Battle In Heaven.

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The Naked Truth: Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) gets some rest in Carlos Reygadas' Battle In Heaven

Full confession: In 1988, a junior in High School, I joined some classmates for a group trip to Mexico City to participate in an exchange program with the American High School there. Students from their school came and visited us in Flint, MI for a week and we returned the favor in Mexico City. Of course, despite the fact that I was living in a rust belt disaster of a city, I had assumed that the Mexican students would be impressed with America. It turned out that the American High School was a private institution, catering to Mexico City's elite. Not only had they been to America, they were used to places like Aspen and Los Angeles. Trust me, I was more shocked by their wealth and privilege than they ever could be my little town. When we arrived in Mexico, I went to my host family's house in a Volkswagen driven by an armed chauffeur. We were followed everywhere we went by bodyguards and security personnel, carrying walkie-talkies and giving us the illusion of an unsupervised good time; in reality, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, but we were always under their watchful eye. I later discovered that my host's father was the CEO of AeroMexico who, at the time, had scandalized the nation, accused of stealing millions from the national airline. Or maybe it was all a silly High School rumour. Regardless, we were given a very special insight into Mexico City from a perch high in the suburban hills.

Fast forward to tonight; again, traveling abroad, but this time seeing Mexico City from afar. I have never been back, but watching Battle In Heaven, the images of a nation divided by class and privilege, characters of tremendous wealth living above the law, I remembered so many moments from my own, albeit brief, experience. The film scandalized critics and audiences at Cannes for its depictions oral sex so explicit they would make Chlöe Sevigny blush, but the film's graphic sex is nothing more than allegory; the perfect battlefield for simple, brutal, devastating class warfare. Battle In Heaven revolves around two characters; Marcos (Marcos Hernández), the chauffeur and security guard for an unnamed Mexican general, and Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the general's privileged daughter who dabbles in prostitution just for kicks. The film's opening shot lays it all, and I mean all, bare; As Ana services Marcos, his sexual power, the machismo of the impoverished and unattractive male, is clearly the battleground in question. Marcos' class status has emasculated him and filled him with shame; after confessing to Ana of his role in a crime in which he and his wife committed, Ana demands he turn himself in to the authorities. Despite his illusion of sexual mastery over the beautiful young girl (Reygadas' sexual palette is removed of any real intimacy, a pure power struggle), Marcos remains Ana's subordinate. Marcos discovers his power in the most terrible of ways, and in a scene of stunning realism, commits another terrible crime before seeking redemption on a religious pilgrimage.

The film is difficult going, but it has moments of outrageous humor and an amazing tracking shot during Ana and Marcos' lovemaking that levels sexual intimacy with the most quotidian of human activity. It is clear that Reygadas is making a very valid point about class and about sex; that audiences would be outraged watching oral sex and lovemaking between an overweight couple is nowhere near his point. The real battle in heaven is between the haves and the have-nots, between the sexual privilege of the beautiful over that of the everyman, and the struggle inside a single workingman between his desire for sexual power and potency (a wonderful scene involving a soccer match and masturbation makes the point quite nicely) and his impotent political reality. The film is a fiercely intelligent, completely non-commercial look at the brutal underpinnings of class and gender expectations in a nation that cannot deliver a true sense of empowerment without obscene privilege. Kudos to Tartan Films for having the courage to bring this film to audiences outside the festival circuit.

Tomorrow, a full day of screenings and I need some sleep...

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