Sunday, June 04, 2006

Latin American films reflect drug-war suffering


Mexico City - Last month, the mutilated bodies of two policemen were found in the streets of Acapulco. To make a grim story even more gruesome, the cops' severed heads were discovered some distance away in the Pacific resort city once fabled for its glamorous Hollywood visitors but now better known for toxic beaches and a vicious turf war between rival drug cartels. A sign accompanying the remains read: "So that you learn to respect."

This macabre news rode the airwaves and splashed across newspaper front pages here for a couple of days. Then it vanished into a media morgue already chockablock with unsolved cases of murder and mayhem.

Kidnappings, revenge killings

In Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries, such real-life horrors have spawned movies, TV shows, songs, novels, performance pieces and visual artworks dealing with the region's signature crimes: kidnappings and revenge killings, many of them fueled by the drug trade.

Many of these pop-culture offshoots have been little more than homages to the thug life, celebrating wealth acquired by any means necessary and violence as the essence of Latin male identity. Mexico's B-movie industry is rife with pulpy shoot-'em-ups, and many of the popular ballads known as narcocorridos glorify and mythologize the law of the gun and the rule of the machete.

But in recent years, a subgenre of movies, novels and other cultural works has begun presenting a more nuanced and thoughtful take on Latin America's pervasive violence. Unheroic and anti-glamorous, the works depict how violence degrades individuals and shatters social life. At their best, they don't simply offer escapism or vicarious identification with powerful, romanticized killers, but deeper psychological profiles of the perpetrators combined with a critical, unflinching look at the conditions in which these pathologies breed.

Two examples of this new-wave crime fiction hit Mexican theaters this spring. Emilio Maill {inodot} 's "Rosario Tijeras," one of the top-grossing films in Colombian history, profiles a sexy hellion of a hit woman, caught up in Colombia's drug wars, who kisses victims before blowing them away. But the movie's initial sensationalism ultimately yields to a far more sobering and thoughtful mood.

In its opening frames, "Rosario Tijeras" gives the impression that it's going to be one of those anti-crime pics that wants to flush its coke and snort it too. It opens at a disco in Medellin, erstwhile capital of Colombia's cocaine trade. The performers are young, beautiful and charismatic (especially Flora Martinez as Rosario Tijeras), the music is thumping disco and the lighting and camera work have a languid sensuality.

But just when it seems we've entered a fantasy world of cinematic wish-fulfillment, the movie begins cross-cutting to images of a bloodied woman being rushed into surgery at a hospital. Slowly deconstructing its own eroticized facade, the film backtracks, then fast-forwards through Rosario's rise and fall, as she is transformed from a lusty, gun-wielding assassin into a wreck of a human being.

The depth of characterization that Martinez brings to her difficult role invites both revulsion and sympathy, but aside from its opening minutes "Rosario Tijeras" is unlikely to leave even the most naive adolescent viewer wanting to trade places with the protagonists. The same could be said of Colombian film professor Antonio Dorado's "El Rey" ("The King"), a kind of South American "Scarface" featuring a galvanizing performance by actor Fernando Solorzano as a legendary drug capo in the Colombian city of Cali. "El Rey," a hybrid of melodrama and documentary that Dorado spent years researching and making, was scheduled to be released on the West Coast in May.

Powerful scene

Perhaps the most powerful scene in "Rosario Tijeras" is an extended depiction of the funeral of a young drug enforcer. In the ghoulish mourning ritual, the dead man's weeping friends take his corpse for a cruise in an open-topped car, then to a bump-and-grind bar where a go-go dancer thrusts herself at his lifeless eyes. They move on to his final resting place in a hillside-slum cemetery.

This procession, both tawdry and perversely touching, reflects how Colombians' spiritual character has been hijacked and corrupted by the new religion of easy money. Though the scene's darkly satirical image of a morally sick, death-worshipping society is largely invisible to the film's frenetic characters, it's hard for the audience to miss.

The Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz's "Secuestro Express" is another bleak taste of social breakdown, a stark chronicle of an alarmingly popular type of kidnapping (secuestro, in Spanish) in which victims are snatched and held for very short time periods, forcing their families to cough up ransoms quickly, or else.

Reviewing "Secuestro Express" when it opened in L.A. last year, The Times' Kevin Thomas wrote: "Through this kidnapping, Jakubowicz lays bare a society in which the chasm between the haves and have-nots has opened so wide that the desperately impoverished think increasingly that they have nothing to lose in picking off the privileged."

Jakubowicz knew whereof he spoke; the director made "Secuestro Express" in response to his own kidnapping. These films join a roster that includes such well-received movies as the U.S.-Colombian "Maria Full of Grace" (2004), about a young Colombian woman who becomes a drug "mule" (carrier), and "City of God" (2002), which tracks the divergent lives of two boys from the Rio de Janeiro slums, one a photographer, the other a drug dealer. All of these works go far beyond the mythology that exalts the region's rich, swaggering crime bosses. Instead, they are visceral stories of lives warped by violence, desperation and poverty.

Part of the explanation for the shift in perspective may be demographic. As the drug trade and other illegal businesses have become globalized, automatic weapons have proliferated, police corruption has spread and urban slums, or favelas, have grown into crime-ridden shadow communities. Violence has touched every level of Latin society. Many people are likely to have a friend, loved one or acquaintance who has fallen victim to, or committed, violence of one type or another. Even for the rich, who hide behind high walls and inside armored cars in places like Sao Paulo, Bogota and Mexico City, random violence can no longer be an abstraction, if it ever was.

In the summer 2004, this pervasive sense of dread that anyone, at any time, can be a target prompted tens of thousands of Mexicans, many of them middle- and upper-middle class, to take to the capital's streets to protest crime, after a wave of kidnappings. Similar demonstrations occurred recently in Venezuela, where three kidnapped schoolboys recently were found dead in the brush on the outskirts of Caracas.

Jose Manuel Valenzuela, 43, a scholar-researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana who has written extensively about the narco underworld and its intersection with pop culture, agrees that as the narco-mundo has grown into a global, corporate-like enterprise, it has affected a wider cross-section of Latin society.

"The people are trying to figure out what this narco world means, a scene that is charged with mystification and always constructed out of codes that the majority of the people don't understand, or understand from very basic premises," he says.

A number of the most thoughtful and disturbing recent works use that underworld to get at more fundamental conflicts within Latin American society, much in the way that Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy transcends the story of a mob dynasty and becomes an allegory of American capitalism's brutal excesses.

In Fernando Sarinana's "Todo el Poder" (1999), a Mexico City filmmaker (Demian Bichir) discovers after becoming a robbery victim that the chain of corruption extends nearly to the top of the capital's crime-fighting establishment. He's no vigilante superman, though, just an ordinary guy relying on his camera, his wits and a team of assistants that includes a very youthful-looking Diego Luna.

Black comedy

A more recent Mexican work, the pitch-black comedy "Matando Cabos" (Killing Cabos), about a kidnapping gone ludicrously wrong, likewise digs beneath its own surface to reveal multiple levels of societal rot. Upping the dramatic ante, the plot actually involves two kidnappings, one accidental, the other a cold-blooded abduction in which the perpetrators grab the wrong man.

Though the morally ironic "Matando" has a clear set of bad guys, nearly all of its characters -- including a janitor, a society matron, a former lucha libre wrestler and an insufferably talkative parrot -- commit peccadilloes and/or major crimes, producing a domino-like cascade of bloody coincidences. At some level, the movie suggests, all Mexican society conspires to perpetrate a corrupt system in which power is routinely abused and justice and fair play are discarded at will. In "Matando Cabos," violence and contempt for the law are not the exclusive province of criminals, but rather are reflexive responses, basic instincts that have poisoned Mexico and deformed its social DNA.

Impressively, even while it stealth-moralizes, "Matando" entertains: It was Mexico's top-grossing Spanish-language film in 2004. But despite its comic, hyperbolic visual style, the movie's nasty social implications are tough to shake.

"If you think about it, there really are no victims in `Matando Cabos.' Everyone has done something to get what they got," says Fernando Rovzar, 26, who produced the film with his brother Billy, 29, and their up-and-coming company Lemon Films.

Raising consciousness

Like the majority of the new Latin movies, "Matando Cabos" barely made a ripple in the U.S., whose craving for illegal narcotics is the indirect cause of so much regional violence. But many Latin filmmakers seem as concerned with raising consciousness among their own countrymen as with scoring a big stateside hit. "Mexicans are very cynical, we're very critical of our own society," Rovzar says, discussing the philosophical outlook that shaped his film. "But we're not critical enough to do something about it. We're just critical."

Mexico's most prominent intellectual, Carlos Monsivais, touched on a related theme in a recentessay in the newspaper El Universal. Commenting on last summer's lynching of two policemen by a Mexico City mob, and the bloody battle between police and villagers in the town of San Salvador Atenco earlier this month, Monsivais questioned the source of this alarming "violencia popular." His essay urged Mexicans to consider that the violence they inflict on themselves serves only to reinforce an oppressive status quo.

That's a critique that many politicians in the region still shy from. But it's one that Latin American audiences are finding increasingly at the movies.


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