With ''Battle in Heaven," I suppose I should start where its talented but maddening maker, Carlos Reygadas, would probably like us to begin. With the sex. In the opening shot, the camera embarks on a journey from a man's face, along his naked, corpulent trunk, stopping at the nude, dreadlocked young woman kneeling at his waist. Judging from the man's blank expression, he doesn't appear to be having the time of his life. Over the course of the film, it's a look you'll know well, and you might feel the same way yourself.
With relentless and ruminative deliberateness, Reygadas shows us a Mexico City that seems to be decaying from the inside out, from the vantage of the owner of the aforementioned blank face, Marcos (Marcos Hernandez). He's the driver for a general and the woman is the general's daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), who prostitutes herself just because. Her hobby must be working for her because she's the only person in the film who exhibits any emotional range. Her enjoyment doesn't seem to have any bearing on Marcos, who admittedly has other reasons to seem indifferent. The baby he and his wife (Berta Ruiz) have kidnapped for a ransom has died. He wants to turn himself in but tells Ana what he's done instead.
The story, as it crawls toward its violent and desultory climax, is willfully inconsequential. This is a pictorial experience that Reygadas has rooted in slummy, pulpy despair, making a movie that in the hands of other young directors (he's 33) would have certainly resulted in a work of sensationalism. Instead, Reygadas has made a sensationalist picture in which all the sensation is willfully dulled. Every scene seemingly has been injected with a shot of Novocain, dramatizing the characters' loneliness, isolation, and detachment, chiefly through intense drabness and the suppression of vocal inflection. To achieve the latter, he's cast mostly nonprofessionals who take direction well and photograph even better. In their lovemaking scene, Marcos and his rotund wife are like two Botero sculptures pressing into each other.
''Battle in Heaven" is more mannered than 2002's ''Japón," Reygadas's jarring and accomplished debut. This second film, in most respects, is the more ambitious of the two. He uses cinematic art to elevate his lurid subject matter from the gutter to the choir loft. But, sadly, not even that is enough to make his movie the transcendently holy affair it aspires to be.
If the Mexico City of, say, Alejandro González Iñárritu's ''Amores Perros" was humid and hellish, the city this movie captures isn't heavenly so much as a funereal afterlife. During sex sequences between Ana and Marcos, the camera gives up on them and goes for a ghostly stroll around the courtyard of her apartment complex. Afterward, the two bodies lie side by side in perfect symmetry, and, as if to jokily punctuate the mortuary mood, the camera shoots them from the edge of the bed with their bare feet upright in the foreground. A pair of toe tags is all that's missing.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.