Heli, Mexico's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Outsiders Pictures. International Sales Agent: NDM (Mantarraya Productions)
For close to a decade now, the Mexican people have been served a daily dose of terror. Tortured, beheaded, and dismembered bodies appear every day scatter around the country as retribution and collateral damage of the ongoing drug war. Reveling in the ubiquitous impunity, such elaborate nightmarish scenes have become the cartels’ preferred method for effective narco-propaganda. Left powerless and frightened, the citizens’ only hope for sanity is to ignore and go on praying the deplorable violence doesn’t reach their homes.
Naturally, such frustration infects all forms of artistic expression, being cinema the most vivid of them all.
Nonetheless, the subject has been
blatantly avoided by most of the country’s filmmakers. As the quotidian carnage becomes a perpetual occurrence, it is often observed from a distance
achieving an unsettling normality. Through this disconnection the dead are rendered to a numeric value, nothing more than a statistic. Film allows the
creator to humanize the victims and the perpetrators, and to make them relevant once again. Mindful of this, and serving as cathartic vehicle to voice the
nation’s anguish, Amat Escalante’s film Heli is a gripping and unforgettable tour de force.
Emerging all over the Mexican rural landscape, factories and industrial plants have become the origin from which makeshift communities sprawl. Families settle in the vicinity as their lives become dictated by the only source of licit employment in the area. Like most of the men in his small town in the state of Guanajuato, Heli (Armando Espitia), a young family man, works at the Hirotec plant assembling cars, as does his father. Together they support Heli’s sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), a spunky teenage girl, his similarly young wife Sabrina (Linda González), and his infant son Santiago. Surely they manage to make ends meet earning an honest living, but there are visible apathetic undertones in their behavior that resemble the vast desolation of the arid setting.
Falling in love for the first time, middle schooler Estela is secretly dating 17-year-old cadet Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). Easily amused, she enjoys going for rides in his worn out car while he proudly showcases his strength and knowledge acquired during military training. Despite Beto’s efforts to get intimate, their juvenile romance is something rather innocent and pure. The young man has plans of marrying Estela and moving away, but in order to realize his ambition he decides to take a dangerous route. Familiar with his superior’s illegal hiding spot, he steals a couple cocaine packages and hides them in Estela family’s water tank with intentions of reselling them.
Casually discovering the packages, Heli doesn’t hesitate to destroy them, and immediately prohibits Estela from seeing her boyfriend. Still, it is already to late to avoid the consequences of their involuntary involvement. Just as Heli and his father discus the incident, a squad of murderous policemen breaks in to then kill the older man. Heli and his sister are kidnapped alongside Beto to be punished for their family's fault. After enduring appalling torture, Heli survives the ordeal, but is now faced with unfathomable hardships to rebuild his life. Between the flagrantly shameless corruption of the authorities and his pent up frustration, Heli can’t make sense out of his helpless condition. Having no clue of Estela’s whereabouts, he is taken over by violence and the need for liberating vengeance.
From newcomer Espitia in the eponymous and crucial role of Heli, to the young boys forced to witness and participate in the sadistic physical punishments, the director’s use of non-professional actors delivers mesmerizing results. In addition to the perfect naturalism and credibility offered by the performers, the piece is shot with and eerie allure, which takes advantage of the sweeping landscapes of southern central Mexico. Intensely beautiful, but equally disturbing in content, the film conveys its highly political yet humanistic message, in a purely cinematic manner.
Tackled with unflinching courage, the shocking realism is never overdone. Escalante’s vision is one of audacious commitment to expose brutality without restraint. Deliberately harsh, the gruesomeness is not there for mere gratuitous exploitation, but to purposely make a statement about the indignant state of the country. The social degradation his film examines emanates not only from the drug war, but also from the abysmal economic inequality, the lack of opportunities, and an amoral government.
Via this family’s ravaged lives he looks at Mexico’s current chaos straight in the eyes fearless of the backlash and with spellbinding, almost heroic,
artistry. Escalante is a fearless auteur that refuses to condone the complicity of indifference. He knows the truth must be told regardless of how
disconcerting it may be. Heli is an intoxicating and striking piece of filmmaking that inhabits the viewer’s psyche long after the
evocative final sequence comes to an end. Furthermore, in the midst of such alarming and unnerving disarray, Escalante offers hope. As a fellow Mexican,
this writer applauds him.
"Heli" Opens in Los Angeles (Laemmle's Playhouse 7/NoHo 7) and in New York (Cinema Village) on June 13th, 2014
This review was originally published last year as part of our coverage for the Foreign Language Oscar Submissions