Heli tells the story of the titular protagonist (played by Armando Espitia), who is a seventeen-year-old boy living with his wife (played by Linda González) and his sister, Estela (played by Adrea Vergara). The film follows the arcs of these characters and Estela's boyfriend (played by Juan Eduardo Palacios) as they struggle with drugs, violence, and corruption.
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Amat Escalante's "Heli" opens with a shot of two bodies, bound and bloodied, pinned down with brute force in a truck bed until one is left alive atop an overpass while another is hung from it, for all to see. By the time the story reaches this point, we've come to learn the identities of each captive and -- in the broadest strokes -- how their fates have intertwined; the second half of "Heli" devotes just as much time to the long, quiet fallout of such a brutal, prolonged assault.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man who works nights at the local auto assembly plant while his father works days, caring for his younger sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara), with the help of his girlfriend (Linda González). Unbeknownst to Heli is the fact that Estela, hardly a teenager herself, has been toying with the heart of 17-year-old police cadet Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), and this relationship will indirectly bring violence to their door.
Spain's Amat Escalante has proven divisive with earlier features "Sangre" and "Los Bastardos," as has co-producer Carlos Reygadas with his own work ("Post Tenebras Lux"), and that trend shows no signs of abating. The director/co-writer takes his time before unleashing bad things on good people, and once it finally does, said violence climaxes in explicitly upsetting ways. Just as Heli and his family seem like a convincingly average blue-collar Mexican family -- each of the main actors is a first-timer, a fact that doesn't show -- their encounters with more aggressive parties have an equally natural brutality about them.
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The first thing anyone is sure to notice in Amat Escalante's Heli is Lorenzo Hagerman's cinematography. The film opens with the sole of a boot pressed against a young man's face as he is bleeding, bound, gagged and lay flat on the bed of a moving truck. Next to him is another young man whose face we cannot see. All we hear is the creaking of the truck as it rolls down a dirt round in an unspecified Mexican town.
All in one shot, the camera slowly pans up and moves into the cab of the truck as the sun beams in over the horizon. It's a beautiful shot and I couldn't help but be reminded of how film limits our knowledge of what's going on based on what we see. Only minutes earlier we were looking at a grisly scene and now, through the front window, the scene appears as innocent as anything else. Innocence as it turns out, is at the heart of this film as the fate of the two boys, and many other young children in Mexico like them, are to become the story of Heli.
The film follows the life of its title character, Heli (Armando Espitia), a 17-year-old living with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), young son, father and 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara).
Like his father, Heli works at the local automobile plant and dropped out of school to support his family. One night, after returning home from his night shift, Estela is still up at 1 AM doing her homework. After telling Heli what she's working on he says, "I don't remember any of that." To which she replies, "I probably won't either when I'm your age." The audience chuckles, but little do we know how clairvoyant young Estela is. The five years that separate the two may as well be 20.
As it turns out, Estela is already attempting to grow up too fast. Her boyfriend (Juan Eduardo Palacios) is a police cadet determined to marry her despite the five years that separate them and his plan to make sure they can do so brings violence directly to their doorstep.
The world of Heli is a dark and desperate one. Set in an impoverished isolated Mexican community, director Amat Escalante’s spare, unflinching drama treats crime and violence as regrettably commonplace occurrences. From Heli’s perspective, it’s not surprising that lawlessness exists in that country’s remote regions—but it is somewhat miraculous that it has yet to visit the film’s main characters. Until now.
The movie, which got its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15, stars newcomer Armando Espitia as Heli, a young man in his 20s who lives in a small house with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), their infant, his 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara), and their father. Lanky and looking more like a kid than a grownup with a child, Heli is nonetheless responsible and protective—not just of his baby but also of his impressionable sister.
No wonder Estela is hiding her relationship with Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), an oafish police cadet who doesn’t have the constitution for the job and seems interested in marrying the underage girl mostly so he can sleep with her. Wanting to start a new life with Estela, Beto makes off with some confiscated illegal drugs, figuring that selling them will bankroll their future. Heli gets wind of Beto’s plan, however, dumping the narcotics to protect his sister. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help him when masked, crooked law enforcement officials break into Heli’s home, taking him, Estela and Beto captive until they recover their drugs.
Escalante’s third feature—his first two, Sangre and Los Bastardos, screened at Cannes but failed to secure U.S. theatrical distribution—boasts a nicely controlled tone that’s subdued but pitiless, calmly showing how Heli’s home is under assault both from within and from without. Coping with an unhappy wife who’s resentful that he moved her so far away from her family, Heli works a tiring, menial job at a local automobile plant, his economic prospects looking terribly dreary. And as the film’s brutal opening, which includes armed men hanging one of their victims from the edge of a bridge, suggests, there are plenty of life-or-death fears outside his door—after all, he’s living in an area where the gang members and the police might be one and the same.
“Open your eyes so you don’t miss the show,” instructs one character midway through “Heli,” shortly before a kidnapped man is beaten with an oversized paddle and stripped to the ankles, his genitals doused in alcohol and set merrily ablaze. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the title (and title character) invokes a certain place of eternal damnation in this nihilistic third feature by Carlos Reygadas acolyte Amat Escalante, who plunges us deep into Mexico’s vicious cycle of drug-fueled violence, with no end — or much of a discernable point — in sight. Destined to traumatize buyers and audiences in roughly equal measure, this accomplished but singularly unpleasant pic lends this year’s Cannes competition its first authentic whiff of scandal.
Surely the most explicit, realistically violent film to premiere on Cannes’ main stage since Brillante Mendoza’s controversial “Kinatay” (which ended up winning the fest’s directing prize in 2009), “Heli” opens on the telling image of a bound-and-gagged man having his face pressed into the bed of a pickup truck by an unseen assailant’s boot. When the truck pulls over, another body is unloaded, carried to the top of a freeway overpass and hung by the neck for all to see. Pic then loops back to explain who these men are and how they got here.
One of them is Heli (the very good Armando Espitia), an auto factory worker in an unnamed Mexican desert region modeled on Guanajuato, who lives a modest existence with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), infant son, father and 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). Coursing with pubescent desire, Estela has begun seeing the older Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), an army cadet who impresses her with his macho brio (one indelible image has him curling Estela like a human barbell). But back at boot camp, Beto himself is subjected to such emasculating hazing rituals as being forced to writhe about in his own vomit — yet more indication that “Heli” intends to leave little to the imagination.
Man cannot subsist on glamour alone, and Cannes knows it. So, after the sugar rush of opening nighter The Great Gatsby, the programmers scheduled in some veg. It was served New Wave Mexican style: raw, gritty, and force fed by bandits who snap puppies' necks with one hand while recruiting underage sex slaves with the other. It tasted as superficially indigestible, if ultimately nutritious, as the prickly pears our hero hacks off the desert cacti in a frenzy of impotent rage.
Heli (Armando Espitia) is about 20, and lives with his wife, baby, father and 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara). This we learn when a census officer pops by his breeze-block house – a half-cute, half-clumsy device – just before he hops on his boneshaker for the night shift at the local auto factory. He forgets himself when he tots up the numbers; this is structurally, as well as thematically, a film about supporting others as you yourself are written out of the picture.
His sister is seeing a 17-year-old soldier, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio); scenes of front-seat fumblings seem initially queasy, then, with hindsight, the picture of innocence and joy. For Beto, whose training includes rolling about in his own vomit, has stolen some cocaine and stashed it in the water tank on the top of Heli's house. This triggers a fallout which eventually explains the opening shots (a kidnapped man being hung from a footbridge), by way of an extended torture set-piece involving cricket-bat beatings and a set of genitals doused in lighter fluid and flambéed, Christmas-pud style. A sofa-full of bored boys watch, taking turns with the bat as a break from the Wii. "What did this one do?" asks one. "Who knows," says another. In the kitchen next door, an unconcerned woman makes tea, cutlery clattering in the gaps between the screams.
Heli may be the most optimistic film you will ever see in which one young man sets another’s genitals on fire. Amat Escalante’s third feature centres on an extended family who live in a smallish city in Mexico. By its end, that family unit has been battered, brutalised and reduced in number – but the unit itself still persists.
So yes, I did leave the film with a spring in my step, although that sense of hopefulness was perhaps compounded by the fact Escalante’s picture was the first to screen in competition at this year’s Cannes Festival. No one knows what horrors and provocations might lie around the corner, but once you have sat and watched another man’s penis being flambéed, you rather feel you can take on anything.