Heli is likely to be one of the most powerful films you’ll see 2014. Considering that 12 Years a Slave was released earlier in the year (in the UK at least), that is saying something. The film takes a close up look at a small family caught up in the inexorable violence of Mexico’s current drug war.
It would not matter if only a single person had died in Mexico as a result of the fighting between the drug cartels and between the cartels and the government, but the fact that trafficking has led to many many people losing their lives, it makes Heli all the more poignant. Estimated numbers of deaths lie between the 60,000 to 120,000 mark. This fact is under reported in the UK.
Anyway, enough of the brutal reality, let us consider this most unflinching film. It starts with a particularly powerful scene. Two bound and bloody men who are pinned to the bottom of an open top van by gun-toting guards, are driven through a deserted early morning town towards a very public destination where one of them is dispatched with swift efficiency. It is unsettling to say the least.
From this sickening murder we are taken to the domestic life of an ordinary Mexican family. Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man of about 20 who lives in a small two bedroom house in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato with his wife (Linda González) and their young child, his 13-year-old sister (Andrea Vergara), and their father. They are by no means wealthy, but the two men seem to be able to support the family by working in the local car factory. It is not clear what all this has to do with the opening episode or the drug war more generally.
But in a country dominated by ‘narco cultura‘, mayhem is never far away. The family are catapulted into what might be described as hell. Heli is in hell. Not long into this sudden turn for the worse, there is another scene of violence that is horribly vivid and extremely hard to watch. However, the scene is in no way gratuitous – and anything less hideous would not do justice to the lives of the survivors who have to piece their lives together in its aftermath. Much of Heli is about dealing with grief and the trauma of violence.
For a film whose central characters’ lives are transformed by the drug trade, it is interesting to note that not a single line of cocaine gets snorted during the film. Drugs and gangsters are not glamorised in any way. Indeed, the bad guys are either thugs, faceless cops or even teenagers and definitely not cool. The film uses a social realist aesthetic to ruthless effect.
Apart from the actor who plays the father, all the actors were unprofessional. This brings a naturalism to the performances, although perhaps occasionally Armando Espitia as Heli is a little opaque and difficult to fathom. There is also only a single song throughout the film – and that is playing on the car radio so barely changes the mood of the film. Instead the film relies on the narrative to drive us relentlessly forward.
This may all sound rather grim, but there is more to the film than that. It looks amazing, Heli and his family live in world of arid pale coffee coloured hills, azure sky and Spartan simplicity. Director Amat Escalante has said that he started with the atmosphere of Guanajuato, the town and area in Mexico where he grew up. Fear may have come to dominate the landscape, but I don’t think this was the original atmosphere that Escalante started from, which was probably some kind of stark beauty.
Heli is also not without humour, especially in the initial half hour. Finally, despite all the horrors the family faces, the film is not without hope. The final short scene is remarkably beautiful, but also contains some glimmers of the possibility of moving beyond suffering. Heli is an extraordinary film that fully deserved to win the Best Director award at Cannes in 2013. It is not an easy watch, but a deeply serious and moving one.
Heli is out in UK cinemas on Friday 23rd May, 2014.
Read our interview with Amat Escalante here.