Fantastic Fest Review: El Narco

27 Sep

El Narco, or El Infierno as it was originally called in Mexico when it was released last year, is the story of a man being slowly and deliberately sucked into the drug game in Mexico.  It begins with Benny García (Damián Alcázar) being deported back to Mexico from the United States after a stay of 20 years.  He arrives back in his hometown to find the city almost unrecognizable, and his younger brother dead.  This is all thanks to the wars between the drug cartels that are ripping Mexico apart.

What follows is the downward spiral that becomes Benny’s life.  We see him get sucked into the cartel in an ill-advised attempt to protect his brother’s widow and teenage son.   And then we watch his life slowly unravel in what would be an extremely tragic movie if it wasn’t broken up by so much humor.

To me, the most interesting thing about El Narco is when it came out and the marketing used in its campaign.  2010 was the two-hundredth birthday of Mexico, and the government used this time to try and convince its own citizens that everything was under control, and the government was obviously going to be the ultimate winner.  This was the bicentennial and it was ultimately a time to celebrate.

Well, writer/director Luis Estrada could not have disagreed more.  And to show everyone what he thought, he made a film about the current state of the nation, named it “Hell”, and gave it the tagline “Nothing to Celebrate”.  In the question and answer session after the film he said that he was trying to make, “a point about what other people think of your celebration.”

And what a point he made.  Filled to the brim with black humor and pointing out not just the problems currently in Mexico, but the ass-backwardsness of glorifying the drug culture that is destroying the nation. Damián Alcázar’s Benny is a character that you can’t help but root for, even when he’s doing incredibly inhuman things.  And the supporting cast, especially Joaquín Cosio as enforcer El Cochiloco and Elizabeth Cervantes as the widow Lupe, are absolutely incredible.

Am I saying El Narco is perfect?  No.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to anyone that can handle the disturbing content such a story obviously brings with it.  But you need to go into it with the knowledge that it is a long movie.  Quite probably too long.  The director says that he meant for it to be exactly as long as it was because he wouldn’t have been able to make all the points he wanted otherwise.  And maybe that’s true, but I feel like the points that would be left would be reaching a much larger audience if it was shorter.

Ultimately, I was left wondering why there aren’t more films about the drug wars currently happening in Mexico.  We have more films and television shows than anyone actually wants about the “War on Terror” that is happening on the other side of the world, but filmmakers seem to have largely ignored the war going on right at our doorstep.  Bravo to you Luis Estrada, for having the courage to make a film such as this.

El Narco is currently available on DVD as an import from Mexico, but I’m not sure about the availability of subtitles.  Regardless, it will hopefully be seeing a U.S. theatrical release in January or February.

-david

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