South of the Border, and Much Further South
Amat Escalante’s Heli offers a glimpse just over the border into an unnamed northern Mexican town afflicted by narco violence. The film’s protagonists – blue-collar auto plant worker Heli (Armando Espitia) and his pre-teen sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) – are innocents who don’t recognize the trouble they’ve stumbled into until it’s already too late. In an instant, their world is turned upside down. Soon they must acquaint themselves with the subterranean Mexico of unmarked military SUVs, banally evil torture chambers in slummy living rooms, and police investigators who might be either corrupt or powerless.
It’s a devastatingly effective narrative technique. We can’t help but identify with Heli, and with so many innocent Mexicans, many of them poor and working-class, who have been pulled into similar narco hells over the past decade. The warm naturalism of the film’s first third gives way to much darker but still idiosyncratic and observant details that make this real-life nightmare all too believable. Heli may go down as one of the best, most empathic treatments of the epochal social cataclysm that is the Mexican Drug War.
All the way at the other end of Latin America, Marcela Said’s El verano de los peces voladores (Summer of the Flying Fish) tells the story of Manena (Francisca Walker), a teenager summering on her upper-class family’s estate in Southern Chile. Never precisely setting narrative stakes but deftly piling on minor incident after minor incident, Said paints a picture of a world not quite right, shrouded in mist and wariness. The principle injustice involves Manena’s family’s relationship to the surrounding Mapuche Indians, who claim use of the estate’s land as traditional hunting grounds.
Said never forgets that her protagonist is a teenager with more pressing concerns, like romance. The specifics of the racial and social conflict are kept just out of focus, often alluded to or left unsaid. With Manena, we have the option of putting the pieces together or preferring the lazy innocence of privilege. It’s a work of impressive subtlety, perhaps most so in its ability to keep us spellbound by mood and vague tension even when we, like Manena, can’t quite tell if this is the way things have always been, or if the situation is about to spin dangerously out of control.
The 17th annual Cine Las Americas International Film Festival ran April 22-27.