Director: Amat Escalante
Writers: Amat Escalante, Gabriel Reyes
Starring: Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Linda González, Juan Eduardo Palacios, Linda González
Synopsis: A young girl (Vergara), who lives with her brother Heli (Espitia) and his wife (González) falls in love with a 17-year-old soldier (Palacios). The soldier steals some drugs recovered from a drug bust, leading the drug barons back to Heli’s house, kidnapping all but the wife and torturing them to get to the narcotics.
As commendable as it can be simulate an impeccable verisimilitude, sometimes it can be a little too raw. In the case of Amat Escalante’s Heli, there are numerous incidences that are repulsively realistic. Softened slightly but moments of warmth and humanity, it isn’t all doom and gloom, but for the majority it will prove tortuous.
Beginning with a long take, dropping you right into the heat of Mexico, your first sight is a bloodied face being pushed down by someone’s boot. Nothing extremely violent as yet, the next part shows the man being dropped by a noose over a bridge. How the filmmakers did this so believably is mind-boggling – it jolts you up in your seat as you brace yourself for something bleak. It’s how Escalante throws you into these types of moments that makes Heli so shocking; you never know what might be coming and just how horrid it may be. Genital burning and the quick snap of a puppy’s neck are just some examples of how vicious the film can be.
Brazenly presenting these scenes to the audience is both Heli’s triumph and downfall – you can either put yourself through it or you can’t. If you can stomach these parts there is an education available about how troubling and dangerous the area and culture can be.
In amongst the ruin are Heli and his sister – the core characters – who exist to make you care and follow events. Armando Espitia may not be a great actor (and this is his first major role) but his everyman persona is certainly needed for what seems like an extraordinary set of scenarios. Andrea Vergara becomes lost through a large section of the film, but her appearance that bookends the narrative is soothing in contrast to the traumatisation.
Perhaps only fitting for the festival run, Heli will struggle with general release. It is overtly shocking through nearly half of the film, never shying away from malice.
Heli was competing in the Official Competition selection at Cannes 2013 and won the award for Best Director. Also posted on LiveForFilms