Having attended and worked at film festivals for several years, it has become easy to spot the “film festival film.” It is almost a genre unto itself. The “film festival film” often takes itself too seriously. It usually has clumsy acting and a director whose stylistic choices seem to change with every reel. It creates a buzz amongst festival attendees, though there is little commercial viability outside the circuit.
Heli, a Mexican film from director Amat Escalante, is precisely this type of film. The film, which surprisingly garnered Escalante the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, recently played at Febiofest.
Heli tells the story of a family living in a remote region in Mexico. The titular Heli (Armando Espitia) works at the automobile plant along with his father. He also provides for his sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara), his girlfriend and their newborn child. Estela becomes involved with a young police cadet named Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), who makes promises to marry her and take her away from the town. Beto discovers a couple of kilos of cocaine and sees this as his opportunity to start a new life. He hides the cocaine with Estela and soon the cartel shows up at their doorstep bringing with it a violent reckoning.
Heli aims to be provocative, and it certainly succeeds in that regard. However, provocation without substance quickly becomes exploitation. Heli is not “about” the drug trade, though the threat of it permeates throughout. Several horrors and atrocities have occurred in Mexico recently as cartels try to settle supply avenues for the billion dollar demand across the border. Escalante tries to bring some of these atrocities to the big screen. When a scene involving a puppy getting his neck snapped in half falls on the milder side of the spectrum, it’s a good indication that the violence is going to be unflinching. On the other side of the spectrum: lighting a guy’s dick on fire.
The problem with Heli is that Escalante does not have a strong enough cinematic command for such a robust subject. Escalante’s style is all over the place. Sometimes he favors wide static shots allowing the action to play from a distance. Out of nowhere he’ll switch to a jerky handheld approach. The pacing is disturbingly uneven. The choice to use non-actors to bring a sense of neo-realism was bold, but a lot of the scenes required acting ranges that proved too difficult for these novices. Ultimately, these short-comings could be forgiven if the storytelling were better. Unfortunately, the audience never relates to any of the characters thus making the violent sequences ineffective. Instead of empathy it was empty shock value. The disturbing scenes go on for too long and after a while the audience becomes desensitized. What is supposed to be poignant becomes farce.
My family comes from Ciudad Juarez. I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence there and have seen its soul ripped away by the violence and political unrest caused by the drug trade. Ultimately, this is why I find Heli to be so disappointing. Lives have been lost. Families have been ruined. Their stories deserve to be more than torture porn masquerading as art.