Monday, 8 September 2014

On DVD: "Heli"

Miss its opening scene - a ruthless kidnap-hanging that serves as a warning of things to come - and for the next forty or so minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking Heli, the film that won Amat Escalante the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2013, was nothing more than an unusually measured coming-of-age drama. We're in the scrublands of Mexico, where the eponymous hero (Armando Espitia), a young man in his late teens, is working nights at a car factory to support the family he lives with: wife, child, father, younger sister. Heli married young, and said sister - who can't be more than 11 or 12 - is herself being courted, with an eye to marriage, by an Army cadet. The cadet, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), is being trained as part of the drive to counter the region's drug cartels, and you wouldn't necessarily need a Masters in recent Mexican history to gather such work would put everyone around this boy at risk - a risk only heightened when he makes the impulsive, stupidly romantic gesture of stealing off with several keys of cocaine, intending to sell them on to pay for the couple's wedding. We are about to learn there is little distance between Heli and hell.

The second act of Escalante's film comprises a series of graphic illustrations of what happens when you cross the wrong people in the wrong country - and how these casual, everyday brutalities make it almost impossible for innocence to survive. There's something of Haneke and Noe in the unflinching pivotal torture sequence, but what's around it proves more compassionate than those clinical provocateurs would permit, with a subtext you might go as far as to consider feminist. Escalante reserves the worst of his onscreen violence for men, while finding time to dramatise the pressures on women in this part of the world to marry young, keep their mouths closed and their legs open, and thereby assent to being full-time mothers, the better to sustain the prevailing patriarchy. (He makes especially haunting the spectral presence of the woman - whether wife, girlfriend or mother - glimpsed through a doorway observing the torture, yet apparently unable to do or say anything to prevent it.)

Yet Heli goes further than most arthouse doommongers would, by seguing into a closing act in which family, stability and peace come to reassert themselves, however tentatively. Nihilism is here countered with a touching - and properly tested - faith in the notion that honesty and goodness might yet supercede dirt and corruption in the Mexican heartlands. (It is an inspired choice on Escalante's part to open and close the film with a pristinely white screen - there is purity in these frames, and enlightenment.) Before the violence, there's a strange anecdote, unrelated to the main plot, in which - long after the crowds have dispersed - a kid takes to the podium from which we've previously the anti-drug initiative being launched, only to apparently be so overcome by this position of power that he cannot find a single word to say. Escalante, in contrast to this boy (and the rest of Heli's see-no-evil-speak-no-evil characters), has absolutely stepped up, and here delivered a very considerable, powerful statement.

Heli is now available on DVD through Network.

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