Heli (Cert 18)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Network Releasing) Running time: 100 minutes
The trouble with brutal honesty is that some people would prefer the lie instead, while those on the outside with no point of reference or access to the facts can only assume that what we are being told is the truth.
This Cannes winning film from Mexico is such a case. Some from director Amat Escalante’s homeland have decried Heli for perpetuating the idea that Mexico is nothing but a corrupt, criminal wasteland while Escalante and co-writer Gabriel Reyes insist this is not the case and they are merely exposing the social injustices occurring of their country.
Our central protagonist, the titular Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man of 20 who lives in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere with his equally young wife Sabrina (Linda González) and their new born baby, Heli’s 12 year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) and their father Evaristo (Ramón Álvarez). Estela is seeing a 17 year-old soldier named Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio), who is being bullied by his superiors, behind her family’s back.
After a public drugs disposal assignment by the army, Beto finds two large cocaine package hidden away which he plans to sell and elope with Estela, temporarily hiding them in the water tank at Estela’s home. Heli learns of the relationship, locks Estela in her room and disposes of the drugs. Shortly after the military storm their house, kill Evaristo and abduct Heli, Estela and Beto.
Here we have a relatively straightforward tale which that spirals into an unpleasant concoction of corruption and extreme violence that doesn’t make for particularly comfortable viewing. This isn’t limited to just the brief bursts of graphic brutality – which also extends to animals, so dog lovers, stay away – but the general atmosphere of oppression and helplessness is pervasive and palpable from the onset. Escalante’s intimate direction and the sparse production values posits the audience right into the heart of the situation, each fraught, grimy, sweaty minute as tense for us as it is for the characters.
The opening scene is a something quite remarkable. We cut cold to a close up of two battered bodies which appear to be hanging upside down. In the same shot, the camera slowly moves upwards to reveal they are in fact on the back of a truck before rising again to take us right up behind the two men in the front of the car as we follow the truck’s journey to its destination. A stunning piece of camerawork.
An hour later we learn that the bodies were Heli and Beto and how they got to be in this state is relayed to us in unflinching detail, including one particular moment of shocking nonchalant torture which will have every male viewer reeling in sympathetic pain. As two impassive teens look on one asks “What did he do?” “I don’t know” shrugs the other but they participate anyway. It is scenes like this and the sheer arrogance and unrelenting bullying of the military men which no doubt was the cause of so much upset among the native audience.
Elsewhere it is the depictions of seemingly innocent daily life which will incur the odd squirm or too from the viewer. For example just knowing that Beto is much older than Estela makes their canoodling session in his car uncomfortable enough to watch; when he tries to initiate something more and deals the manipulative “Don’t you love me?” card when Estela refuses I am sure this won’t sit well with many watching. We are supposed to sympathise with Beto when his officers force him to roll around in his own vomit but when we see him doing reps with Estela as weights, he returns to being a foolish blowhard little boy in our eyes.
For the majority of the film it seems Heli can’t catch a break either despite being the innocent one and any signs of hope seem to drift further away as it progresses. Prior to his abduction and torture Heli was coping with his wife spurning his advances after the birth of their child; he returns home, beaten up and his sister missing to find her ready to leave and his father dead. The police are somewhat cagey in trying to solve the case, while the female detective (Reina Torres) inadvertently lifts the mood with a ridiculous attempt to seduce Heli!
To keep the reality feel of the film alive Escalante used a non-professional cast, and, while it frankly shows in some scenes with some awkward pauses and intense avoidance of looking into the camera, this proves to be a prudent and profitable move.
As the central focus, Armando Espitia begins the film as a rather nondescript almost easily ignored participant, such is his unremarkable appearance. But as time moves on his character grows in confidence, fortitude and stature. As one of many skinhead cadets Juan Eduardo Palacio is also missable as Beto but he has a tougher job making us care about him, especially in his relationship with Estela. Andrea Vergara plays here with unaffected innocence and conviction which is both endearing as it is creepy when she gets cosy with Beto.
Heli hits hard with its bleak frankness, unrelenting bursts of violent and oppressive misery. It’s a slow burner that gradually builds into a living nightmare for both viewer and the characters on screen yet it ends on a tender and hopeful note.
However for us outside of Mexico it paints an unflattering picture of its rural communities and delivers a stunning indictment of the apparent corruption that plagues the lives of the average man. I say apparent as we only have Escalante’s word for it and while we can see why there was an outcry over this film back home, perhaps this is a case of no smoke without fire?
If you like your drama gritty with conscience pricking social commentary then Heli will creep up on you like a snake baring its stark accusatory fangs.
The Making of Heli
Q&A with Director Amat Escalante
Original Theatrical Trailer
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black