I suspect that Heli, a Mexican drama playing tomorrow night at 9:30 PM and Monday at 8:30 PM, will be among the most divisive films at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. It contains some of the most graphic images of torture I’ve ever seen in a movie, and director Amat Escalante’s blunt, deadpan presentation somehow makes them even more repulsive. Like Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (a standout at CIFF two years ago) or Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro (a standout at CIFF this year; it plays again on Tuesday at 1:15 PM), its subject is brutality in contemporary Mexico; and like those films, it generates a frightened, paranoid energy that makes violence seem all but inescapable. At the end of all three, major characters with whom we have come to identify have been stripped of their humanity, and the narrative has been interrupted by scenes of atrocity. Yet Heli may go further than either of the other films in the severity of its conclusion or the hideousness of its violence.
Depending on who you ask, the tactics used by Escalante, Naranjo, Quemada-Diez,—or, for that matter, Carlos Reygadas, who employed Escalante as assistant director on Battle in Heaven and has helped finance his films—are cynical ploys to shake up desensitized art house audiences or serious efforts to draw attention to an ongoing crisis. The films, marked by inventive, even rapturous technique, seem designed to confuse the issue. Is it OK to be astonished by an extended Steadicam shot if its subject is a scene of real-world terror? Would a less graphic (and, thus less devastating) depiction be more tasteful? Or is it necessary that we respond to terror with disgust or shame at our own fascination?
Heli inspires revulsion from its opening shot, a brilliantly executed long take that climaxes with a mutilated corpse left to dangle from an overpass. After that overture, Escalante introduces his protagonists, a family living in Guanajuato, a medium-sized city in central Mexico. The title character is a young man of about 20 who lives with his wife, infant, father, and preteen sister. Both men of the family work at the local auto parts factory, where men are liable to be fired if they miss even one shift. The family seems to scrape by, though everything around them seems weathered by an air of degradation. Little sister Estrela, who’s 12, believes herself to be romantically involved with a 17-year-old military recruit—and Escalante, further nursing disgust, gives us a Larry Clark-worthy portrait of their make-out session. We also see some of the recruit’s “training,” which consists of being brutally humiliated by his superiors. These dehumanizing rituals set the stage for the movie’s second half.
Seeing an opportunity to start a new life, Beto the recruit steals some packages of impounded cocaine and asks Estrela to hide them until they can skip town. In doing so, he puts a curse on her entire family, one that plays out long after the episode of murder and mutilation that makes up the film’s centerpiece. (Escalante keeps it deliberately ambiguous as to whether the torturers are military or drug-cartel men. As in Miss Bala, state corruption is made to seem so pervasive that their identity is a moot point.) Throughout, Escalante demonstrates astonishing command of mise-en-scene—not just in his intricate camera movements, but in the immersive realism he creates with his performers. (Intriguingly, Steven Spielberg presided over the Cannes festival jury that warded Escalante the best director prize this past May.) I could say the same thing of Reygadas in Battle in Heaven, Naranjo in Miss Bala, or Quemada-Diez in La Jaula de Oro. These films feel so authentic as to dispel (or at least qualify) charges of mere exploitation.