VIFF 2013 Review: Heli
Heli is a Mexican film that has garnered huge buzz since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. The question being is it worth the hype?
Heli is a 17 year-old young man in Mexico. However he is married and the father of a baby. Both his wife and his infant son live with his father and sister in a shabby house on the outskirts of town. Heli has a job as a laborer at an auto plant and makes a limited income. His sister Estela is a 12 year-old girl in school who has fallen for a 17 year-old cadet in training named Alberto. Alberto is tired of the military life and wants to devote his time to Estela. However the age difference causes problems especially since Alberto wants to have a sexual relationship with her and she fears young pregnancy.
Alberto makes a decision just after the police and the government holds a public media event where they burn all seized marijuana and cocaine in declaring their war on drugs and war on corruption. Alberto knows of a secret place in the compound where there are bags of cocaine secretly held by the general. He agrees to sell two bags he stole in another town so that he can afford to marry Estela. This plan is unknown to the father but Heli discovers the bags inside the water tank on the roof. He disposes the cocaine in a distant remote location and punishes Estela by locking her up in her room.
Late one night, some members of police storm the house, kill the father and take Heli and Estela to their secret place along with a badly beaten Alberto. They throw the body of the father on the road once Heli confesses to destroying the bags of cocaine. All three are taken to a house within the police compound. Alberto is beaten and burned mercilessly. Heli is badly beaten but not as badly as Alberto and is spared the burning. The torturers hang Alberto from a bridge, keep Estela at their place and drop Heli off on a remote road to walk home.
Heli does return home much to the relief of Sabrina who was left distraught after seeing what happened inside the empty house. Estela is still missing however. The police cooperate to locate the father’s body but believe Heli and his father are involved with the drug trade. Even Heli is nervous about telling the whole story fearing he will be classified as a criminal. The aftermath and trauma affects Heli for days as he loses his job and even becomes abusive to his wife. To make matters worse, a female detective offers to close the case if Heli consents to her offer of a sexual favor, which Heli rejects.
In the passing days, the policemen who held them captive are later killed and decapitated. Heli sees the news on television including the images of the decapitated heads. Estela arrives home to the relief of both Heli and Sabrina. She too had to do the long walk Heli did. However Estela is scared from the violent events and the rape she suffered during the walk home to the point she can’t speak. She is however able to draw Heli the location to where she was raped. That paves the way for Heli to solve the problem in his own way and lead to an ending that makes it look like the right thing in the end.
This film is a story written based on actual events in the Mexican news. It is a depiction of the corruption happening in Mexico but it’s more. It tells the situation from a human perspective through a family that’s caught in the middle. We learn of why this happens, who gets hurt, who does the hurting, who survives and how they try to carry on in the aftermath. It’s not just about the events and incidents being played out. It’s also about who is involved in this too. That is apparent as both Heli and Estela try to carry on after the incident even to the point where it almost threatens Heli’s marriage to Sabrina and Estela’s sanity. Even seeing how this incident threatens to tear the surviving members of the family apart adds to the human aspect of the film. There’s also the subplot about young love. There’s Heli, a 17 year-old married father and his young wife. And there’s Estela, a 12 year-old falling in love for the first time and clueless about the potential realities of marriage, especially to someone as irresponsible as Alberto. That makes the film more than just a crime drama.
The best efforts in the film without a doubt are the efforts of Amat Escalante. His directing and co-writing of the script with Gabriel Reyes is a very good depiction of corruption in Mexico and how it won’t tear a family apart despite all that it takes away. I’ve never read of such a new story referenced but this is a good adaptation of such incidents into a feature film. The acting in this film including the young actors was also very good. Armando Espitia was very good as Heli. His performance told as much through his silence as it did when he was talking. That was also the same with the other young actors in the film. Also very good was the performance of Andrea Vergara as the young sister. She was very good in representing the young naivety of falling in love at 12 without being a typical cutesy kid performance. The film itself being played out without an added music score actually added to the intensity of the drama and the storytelling.
Heli has already received a lot of awards buzz. Director Amat Escalante won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the film itself was nominated for the Palme d’Or that was eventually won by Blue Is The Warmest Color. However the film has not received a lot of good buzz in terms of audience fair. In fact many critics have often questioned the watchability of such a film, especially the torture scene where Alberto has his gasoline-doused genitals lit on fire. It’s safe to assume it was prosthetic genitals that Juan Eduardo Palacios wore during that scene. I don’t see how else that scene could be done. Even as well the feel of the movie may come across as too down and depressing. I do believe that the film doesn’t end as sown and depressing as say movies like Kids or Thirteen. Instead I saw the ending as images of hope for the family even after all they’ve lost and all they were violated of.
Another criticism of Heli comes from people from the home country of Mexico. This film is Mexico’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2013 Academy Awards. However many people both inside and outside of Mexico’s film industry are unhappy with the depiction of corruption in Mexico. Escalante responds that his film is not anti-Mexican. Co-writer Gabriel Reyes even added it would be socially irresponsible not to speak out about the bad things happening in Mexico.
Heli is a very good story about a young family sticking together despite the things that threaten their unity. Nevertheless it also a story that can be considered unwatchable to many.