Battle in Heaven begins and ends with graphic scenes of a Mexican flag slowly being raised and lowered by a military honor guard. Oh, and also of oral sex, performed on a fat, naked, inexpressive middle-aged Mexican man by a lithe, naked, inexpressive young woman whose blondish dreadlocked hair, piercings, tattoos, and eyeliner suggest the stylings of a rich punk princess.
Between those two attention grabbers on a theme of flagpoles, languorously performed and indifferently observed, Mexican filmmaker/provocateur Carlos Reygadas pitches his own fight for the aesthetic tolerances of viewers, goading us to react to images about which he himself studiously offers no opinion. The fat man, Marcos (Marcos Hernández, like the rest of the cast a nonprofessional actor chosen for his physical appearance), is a chauffeur for the general who supervises the daily flag operation. The girl on her knees is Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the general's daughter. Both are engaged in sideline operations: She slums in a brothel, while he and his wife (Bertha Ruiz) have gotten in on the craze for infant kidnap and ransom, with tragic results.
Perhaps the pairings of Marcos and Ana, of sex and military display, of botched crimes and bad skin, are meant to signify modern Mexico; Reygadas won't say. Indeed, as in his splashy debut feature, 2003's Japón, every scene is an uninflected event, presented without what the filmmaker would surely call the ''crutch'' of narrative and what this critic would call the dignity of conviction. The coupling of Marcos and his homely wife is treated with no more or less weight or privacy than a noisy parade of Catholic pilgrims through the streets of Mexico City, which Marcos eventually joins in a gesture of what may be spiritual longing; who knows, since that despair, too, is undercut by the coldness with which Reygadas observes his countrymen.
A notorious opinion divider last year at Cannes, Battle in Heaven is less about heaven or battle, or hell on earth, or the soul of Mexico, and all too much about gawking. And so, for all the ''shock'' of the movie's clinical carnality, this battle is lost.