Set in Guanajuato, Mexico, Heli tells the story of the crude life the city’s residents endure while dealing with the ongoing militarization of the “war on drugs.” The opening shot augurs the harshness of the rest of the film, as we see two of the main characters, Heliberto, who goes by the nickname Heli (Armando Espitia), and Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). Beaten and battered, they ride half-conscious in the back of a pickup truck. Heli’s bloodied face is pinned down by Beto’s boot. The camera lingers on Heli’s face for an extended shot, allowing a sense of helplessness to seep into the audience. The violent scene is straightforward, stark and shown without music; a style that is carried throughout the rest of the film.
Heli’s director, Amat Escalante was bestowed the 2013 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, only the fourth Mexican director to be recognized with the prize in the 68 years of the film festival. This accomplishment was no doubt a boost for the film but also proves the magnitude of its relevance. Escalante was raised in Guanajuato, the town depicted in the film. His close and personal connection to the area is palpable, as Heli shows the many layers of social disruption the war on drugs has left on Mexico.
Escalante’s genius lies on his focus on human relationships, as blossoming first love and strong family ties provide the backdrop to the action in Heli, while presenting the merciless effect of the shock waves generated by drug-dealers and corrupt police. Early in the film, we learn Heli is a 17-year-old who tells a census worker he is the head-of-household living with a wife, a baby son, younger teenage sister Estela and his father. He works at a Japanese car factory and cares for his family, struggling to do the “right thing.” Estela (Andrea Vergara) is the picture of innocence. She is involved with Beto, a boy several years older than her. The romance seems harmless enough, filled with clumsy moments of young experimentation, until Beto gets a “smart” idea involving a couple of stolen kilos of cocaine that will allow the two to elope.
Beto is a trainee with the militarized Mexican police force and has easy access to confiscated drugs. The cruelty that befalls him begins as early as the training sequences in the desert, which reveals how deeply-rooted brutality is not only in the streets but also in the groups meant to protect citizens. The irony could be lost, as viewers can easily be swept away from the big picture by one particularly stark moment during training. An American adviser shows a Mexican drill sergeant how to break the wiped out Beto, who has vomited during exercises. The gringo instructs the commander to order the collapsed trainee to roll over his own throw-up. Scenes like this unfold in static wide shots that show the contrast between the broad skyline, complete with beautiful scenes of the desert that seems so open and full of opportunity, against the small world in which Heli and his family struggle alone and left to fend for themselves against overpowering forces.
The director’s raw style allows the audience to feel something different from most Hollywood films and their depiction of violence without being led to a specific reaction. One of the sequences that has garnered the most attention is an extended torture sequence where Heli and Beto face the blow-back created by their entanglement with drugs. They are taken to a safe house associated with a drug cartel where young men (including some boys playing video games) are already waiting for them. As the torture begins, we even get glimpses of an older woman in another room, cooking. One of the boys asks, “What did this one do?” The torturer shrugs and tells the boys watching to record the scene so they can later upload the footage to YouTube. The savagery unfolds as if the audience was in that tight space with nowhere else to go. Again, there’s no showy camera use, distracting editing or added music beyond the drone of the video game.
The representation of brutality is one of the main themes in the film. Far from glamorizing or presenting a stylized version of it, Heli presents the raw and unpleasant nature of what it’s like to witness violence. There is no escape from what is happening on-screen. You will not walk out of this movie feeling like drug traffickers are “cool” or that our hero “wins.” Heli‘s take on violence is more faithful to reality and far removed from any Hollywood characterization of violent conflict. One is immersed into the sociopolitical rooting of savagery in what otherwise would seem like a sleepy town in the less developed areas of Mexico. Indeed, the complex social situation that emerges from dealing with corruption, the flaws in an economic system with few opportunities for working class people and the dismantling of trust among neighbors who are either part of the drug trafficking economy or not, are all present in Heli.
The ongoing victimization of the characters goes beyond their encounter with drug traffickers who are tightly entangled with police. It shows why many are hesitant about reporting crimes or engaging with the state during such perilous times, as they can be further victimized. The situation is not particular to Mexico; it occurs in many other places, even at home in the USA. A powerful reminder is the recent documentary The Invisible War, which grapples with the story of military rape survivors who are continually victimized by that institution. Few bother speaking out and when they do, it’s like they are fighting a downstream current. Heli vividly characterizes a similar kind of hopeless victimization, though it does offer at least a form of catharsis at the end of the film.
In all, Heli is not subtle about its criticism but shows the intricacies of the current state of affairs in Mexico with a disturbing, visceral flair. However grim depictions are, people in Heli go on as life goes on too. Not all is lost, the human spirit is resilient, and the youth of Estela as well as her brother may symbolize that, for young democracies, it is still a long vertiginous road.
Heli runs 105 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (the violence may be difficult for some to sit through, however). It opens this Friday, May 30, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater.
Program Note: Independent Ethos critics Ana and Hans Morgenstern will introduce Heli on opening night at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 9:15 p.m. and again Saturday, at 7 p.m. Let us know if you will be there by signing up on our Facebook event page. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.