05/21/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cannes 2013: Mexico as Hell in Amat Escalante's Heli

A longtime traveler to Mexico, until a run-in with drug lords who happened to be managing my empty "hotel" (I the only guest in a 300 room money-laundering sprawl of concrete), I decided to drop the fear, and return to Puerto this summer.

That is, until I saw Amat Escalante's Heli at Cannes.

The story of a family that gets caught up with a drug cartel, the film climaxes with a torture scene of two men that includes a penis sprinkled with gasoline and lit. Then--worse of all-- a child whacks the unconscious burning man with a paddle.

I sat in my seat thinking: "Bali. Why not surf in Bali?"

The film depicts a country destroyed by the climate of violence that has made Mexico over the last years one of the most dangerous on the planet, re per capita murders. Its brilliance lies in creating the atmosphere of resignation and fear. After one man (Heli) is let go by his torturers, he returns to his home a numbed man, unable to connect to his wife or make love to her.

The most evocative scenes are surreal panning shots of a barren Mexican desert in the director's own region, Guanajato. We also have searching pans on the indifferent starry night overhead. For me, these shots, reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel, were more powerful than the torture scene.

In fact, the most difficult question that faced this director at Cannes was whether this explicit graphic torture scene was actually necessary---or exploitative of the spectators.

photo by Leopoldo Soto Martinez

The director earnestly responded:

These are images that we are seeing in Mexico all the time, in the newstands and on magazine covers. I wanted the movie to express that other world. I wanted to take the viewer on a rolllercoaster ride into the hole, the torture scene. It's difficult to take somebody there and get dirty with them, rather than just to read and hear about it. What is the point of not showing the violence, so the viewer can go through the story and not suffer? If I am going to deal with violence in a moral way, the responsibility is to show the violence as it should be: sad, dirty and a nightmare.

And yet the director reneged on his own political comment by noting that the inspiration for this film was not the violent climate of his country, but rather genre films, like the westerns of Sergio Leone. "My favorite films actually are horror films," he noted.

A fellow journalist, the well-known German critic Jan Schulz-Ojala ( Der Tagesspiegel), objected to the director's use of the "horror" genre. "It's inappropriate to mix the horror genre, which is entertainment, with something as serious as actual torture."

Another major issue that this director had to grapple with is the image his film gives of Mexico. At the press conference, he and some of his team tried to downplay the fact that this film gives a horrific view of the country.

"It is not an an anti-tourism film for Mexico," the director stammered. "It's a drama, fiction movie, not an analysis of a situation. Mexico is a great country, a beautiful country. It has a virus that invades it."

The actor who plays Heli joined him in his defense: "Violence is just one aspect of Mexico. It would be socially irresponsible to ignore that. But this is a story of a specific family. We are not making a manifesto that this is life in Mexico."

He added--a bit ingenuously: "The whole world has families and has problems."

That said, the film is so contentious that a reporter in Mexico, who has not even seen the film, wrote an opinion piece that Escalante should be imprisoned for the bad image he is giving his country. The article, Escalante told me, is entitled: "The little favor Escalante is doing for Mexico."

Yet aside from its regrettably undefined genre---horror, Western or thoughtful meditation--the film has its strengths and points to the director's reputable experience as a three-time visitor to Cannes, and as a former assistant director to the celebrated Carlos Reygadas.

The last scene is the best: a mute girl falling to sleep with a baby, while a white curtain flows in the window, open to a barren desert outside.