Though it comes to Chicago with hardly any fanfare, Narco Cultura (which opens tomorrow at the City North 14 in Logan Square and the Showplace 14 in Cicero) is one of the best-reviewed nonfiction features of the season (“It’s the most scarific doc I’ve seen since The Act of Killing, praised J. Hoberman). It profiles two interrelated industries, the Mexican drug trade and the Los Angeles-based narcocorrido music business, demonstrating that this is a booming time for both. The narcocorrido is a subgenre of Mexican pop with lyrics lauding high-profile cartel members—Steven Boone, in his four-star review for RogerEbert.com, likens the music to gangsta rap in its fantasies of “ruthless gain” and its close relationship between artists and the criminals they sing about. He writes:
The way the film balances expose, visual poetry, and lucid analysis of two economies and two bureaucracies in two countries is to be studied. Director-cinematographer Saul Schwarz [a photojournalist making his cinematic debut] doesn’t let any one element overwhelm the symphony or obscure his clearly despairing perspective . . . Schwarz’s hand is light and gracefully articulated even in moments that go right for the gut.
As I noted in my wrap-up of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, the ongoing crises in Mexican society have inspired a wave of vital, socially engaged filmmaking. It sounds like Narco Cultura continues this trend. If you want to see it on a big screen, though, chances are you’ll have to act fast. Under-the-radar releases like these seldom play for more than a week.