Amat Escalante is no stranger to controversy. One of the bad boys of the Mexican New Wave, his films, alongside that of close friend Carlos Reygadas (who incidentally is also often his producer), provoke and shock audiences through searing observations of human behaviour that's more closely associated with the likes of Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont. But it's the uncompromising visual audacity, and the common - often banal nature of his subjects that set his films apart. The unexpected brutality evidenced in his earlier works such like Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008) would ruffle even the jaded of viewers.
Escalante's latest offering "Heli", is a contemporary drug-war drama set somewhere in northern Mexico. Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young lad living with a family consisting of his father, twelve year old sister Estella (Andrea Vergara), young wife Sabrina (Linda González), and their six-month old baby. Working for a nearby car assembly plant, Heli is by no means rich, but he gets by, and his family is also generally happy. School-going Estella is in love with seventeen year old special forces cadet Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio). And it is Beto's poor judgement on one occasion that'll turn the family's world into hell. In hoping to finance his elopement with Estella, Beto steals a significant amount of police-confiscated cocaine and hides it in the water tank on top of Heli's house. Upon discovering it, Heli impulsively destroys the stash because he felt that was the right thing to do. But how wrong was he..!
It would trigger a chain of horrific events, part of which will also make up the film's opening sequence, when we see a gagged and beaten up Beto being lynched from a footbridge. There is an extended torture scene that precedes it - shown halfway into the film, where Beto and Heli are strung in the living room of a family home and first beaten with what looks like a cricket bat (didn't know they play cricket in Mexico). The kids, interrupted from their Wii, join in by taking turns with the bat while being watched with mild disapproval from the kitchen by their mother. After the beatings, Beto's genitals are dowsed in petrol and set alight. The banal domesticity of the surroundings and the casual savagery presented within it is what makes the scene all the more shocking.
Heli is however spared a similar fate - he is allowed to limp back home, but his nightmare has hardly ended - his sister too had been picked up but has not yet returned. He looses his job, and his relationship with Sabrina hits rough weather. Added to his misery is the corruption among the police investigating his father's murder and Estella's kidnapping - with one of them, a supposedly sympathetic female detective, even demanding sexual favours from him. His wife and child were lucky to have been out of town on that fateful day, and the scene when Sabrina returns home with the baby to find it ransacked with a trail of blood on the floor, is one of the very few scenes where Escalante shows any sympathy towards his audience - the scene is also classically shot.
Otherwise, the film is relentlessly unforgiving, and even though the end leaves us with a ray of hope for the family that we've come to care about, it is a damning indictment of a country fighting for its soul, with a corrupt establishment in collusion with drug cartels. While this may just be one aspect of Mexican life, confined to certain parts of the country, the director nevertheless raises some probing questions about the state of affairs, and asks why 'normal' life should remain a bit of a lottery for some people who're not even involved in the drugs trade. Escalante won the best director's award at Cannes, and the film was also nominated for Palme d'Or. It is also Mexico's official entry for the forthcoming Academy Awards. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com DVD Link [NTSC]
The Nudity: Linda González, Reina Torres, and Armando Espitia
As Sabrina, Linda González is briefly nude during a shower scene, and in two sex scenes that follow, one of which also involves nudity from Armando Espitia as protagonist Heli. Reina Torres plays police detective Maribel, who in a scene seeks sexual favours from Heli in a none too subtle way.