Mexican cinema brings narco-terror to the screen

‘Heli’ tells a story of hope and love against the backdrop of bloody drug violence

A scene from the movie 'Heli'.
A scene from the movie 'Heli'.

A truck pulls up carrying two seriously wounded people who appear to be bleeding to death. One of the victims, who may be still alive, is strung up semi-nude from a bridge as a gruesome warning.

This setting, which is sadly rather familiar to Mexicans, is the opening scene to Heli, a new film that not only focuses on the bloody drug war occurring in Mexico, but also touches on love, young people and hope in a society almost wrecked by a bloody and dangerous conflict.

But some wonder if the movie isn’t tarnishing Mexico’s international image. “It is better you asked the person who was responsible for allowing the country to become this way,” said the movie’s director, Amat Escalante, when challenged on this point by a group of journalists during a press screening held at the Cineteca Nacional recently.

Heli tells the story of Estela, played by Andrea Vergara. She is 12 years old and falls in love with a young, impulsive and irresponsible cadet portrayed by Juan Eduardo Palacios, who ends up getting her family entirely involved with the drug-trafficking world. The young couple’s innocence is contrasted with the brutal behavior and savagery of the powerful drug traffickers and the money they earn.

No one can say that what is depicted in this film does not occur"

Estela’s brother (played by Armando Espitia) confronts his family’s tragic destiny with utter impotence. Fear, courage, revenge and hope are reflected in the eyes of this scrawny, shirtless boy who stands up to a huge military truck that stalks his home. It is a beautiful and powerful scene that summarizes the movie and a country.

“This is hurting the young people of Mexico and I wanted to show what their impossible but hopeful struggle in this country was like,” the director said.

Nearly 65 years ago, critics, as well as politicians, also came down hard on Luis Buñuel when he portrayed Mexican society in a poor and miserable state in his 1950 classic Los olvidados (or, The forgotten ones). But time as well as the critics admitted he had been right.

“Nothing is exaggerated in my film. No one can say that what is depicted in this film does not occur,” said Escalante. “Should there be censors to ban me from presenting a bad image of my country? That would be sad.”

Influenced by Werner Herzog, Michael Haneke and Luis Buñuel, the director said that he was very thankful how well his latest project has been received; his previous two films, Sangre (Blood) and Los bastardos (The bastards) were both screened at Cannes, but this year Escalante won best director at the prestigious French film festival, despite competition from the Cohen brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Roman Polanski.

What I intended to show was that Mexico is being ruined by these criminal elements.”

While there isn’t much explicit violence throughout the movie, there is one specific scene which, according to some, is one of the cruelest and most brutal scenes ever shot in Mexican cinema. Traffickers cruelly torture two young men, savagely beating them, and burning the genitals of one of them in front of a group of children who are playing videogames. During the screening, some people walked out while others in the audience just looked away.

“In cinema you expose not bury. Narco-violence is horrible but to me it is much more terrible that those youngsters are part of that violence,” he said, adding that: “What I intended to show was that Mexico is being ruined by these criminal elements.”

After the release of Amores Perros (2000) – directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga – Mexican cinema began to recover a prestige that it once had during its 20th-century golden. Directors such as Luis Estrada, Guillermo del Toro and Iñárritu, actors such as Gael García Bernal and Demián Bichir, and documentary filmmakers like Everardo González, Lucia Gaja and Juan Carlos Rulfo have captured international prizes while enjoying avalanches of praise from critics and the public.

While some movies in Mexico have touched on the drug trade, there are few that portray it as a social problem. In 2011 Estrada was one of the first to give Mexicans on the screen what they see reported every day in the newspapers and television. His El Infierno (or, Hell) portrayed the underground world of narco-trafficking with black humor. The following year Gerardo Naranjo also touched on the issue in a crude and almost excessively realistic way with his Miss Bala, a portrayal of how violence and terror rips apart everyday life in Mexico.

Heli follows much the same line of Naranjo’s 2012 movie by eliminating the stereotypical crime figure who wears boots and a charro (Mexican cowboy) hat, instead focusing on the atrocities committed by traffickers without offering any real solutions for hope. “My film is a reflection of the virus that is plaguing our society. I wasn’t trying to create a social film; I am not an analyst and nor do I try to deliver any messages. I just tried to be honest with myself,” Escalante said.

The majority of the actors are not professionals. “I found them on the streets because I look for interesting people who do not come out of the actors’ guild,” the director said. Juan Eduardo Palacios, the young man who portrays the cadet who is eventually tortured and murdered, said that he wasn’t too thrilled at first that he was going to be killed off, but was relieved that it was all done with special effects. “I was very embarrassed when I had to take off my clothes, but we accomplished it in the end and experience was enjoyable,” he said.

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