thu 25/04/2024

Heli | reviews, news & interviews



A family crisis forms the basis of a chilling thriller set in modern Mexico

Innocence lost: Andrea Vergara and Juan Eduardo Palacios in 'Heli'

With this year's Cannes Film Festival in full swing, the winner of last year's Best Director prize gets a belated UK release. Heli is the third feature from the Spanish-born, Mexican-raised Amat Escalante, following Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008). Set in a ravaged town in rural Mexico, Escalante's film shows a country enslaved by the drugs trade, its authorities corrupted and its people living in poverty and fear.

By combining compositional magnificence and hard-to-watch content Heli gives us beauty intermingled with beastliness.

Heli finds children growing up far too fast, while the adults who should be their protectors are rendered ineffectual, untrustworthy or worse. The film begins with a nightmarish fallout: a teenager's bloodied, gagged head being held under a man's boot, with another unmoving body beside him. The pair are being transported in a truck by a gang of men who hang one of the boys from a bridge with a haste which chillingly suggests practice. They pull his trousers down around his ankles - a dose of humiliation to add to the horror. The film then skips back to find how they got here.

It's the story of Heli Silva (Armando Espitia, pictured right), 17 and already married with a child. His wife Sabrina (Linda González) is a disaffected housewife, fatigued beyond her years who resists her husband's advances and resents her extrication from her own family and lack of professional skill. They live in a small two-bedroom house with Heli's father and his 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), a good student whom we see up studying until 1am. When Estela falls for an older boy Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a police cadet, his reckless actions bring the aforementioned violence and more down upon the household. That their age-inappropriate relationship is one of the less disturbing things about this film should tell you a lot.

Heli is part of a loose trilogy of films from Escalante which deal with America's influence on Mexican society and the town shown is similar to that of Guanajuato where the director grew up. The film credibly depicts the devastating impact of a drugs trade driven by American demand; features an automobile plant which the town revolves around and which both Heli and his father work at (whose management is unsympathetic to Heli's eventual hardship); and shows an American instructor leading the punishing, barbaric police training. In Heli young men lacking alternative opportunities are moulded into government thugs and young women with ambition but no prospects exist only to procreate and sexually satisfy men.

Like Gerardo Naranjo's excellent Miss Bala (2011) it's a damning, righteous portrait of modern Mexico. Yet unlike that raw and breathless film, which closely aligned us to its beauty-queen lead, Heli fails to get under the skin of its protagonist, with Heli himself remaining rather blank - as a consequence his family's awful predicament moves less than it should. Escalante and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman show mastery of the mise en scène whereas the screenplay (penned by Escalante and Gabriel Reyes) fails to make meat out of the emotional anguish, giving its talented but inexperienced young performers little to harness. Constantly striking, occasionally shocking yet oddly passionless, Heli stays in the mind even if it largely neglects to trouble the soul.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Heli


Escalante shows mastery of the mise en scène whereas the screenplay fails to make meat out of the emotional anguish


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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