The other night a couple of my friends and I decided to explore the Cineteca Nacional located in Coyoacán. The Cineteca is a movie theatre and cinematic center funded by the Public Education Secretary within the Federal Government of Mexico. According to its website:
Founded in 1974, as Mexico’s National Film Archive, the Cineteca Nacional is the governmental agency entrusted with rescuing, classifying, preserving, restoring, and exhibiting the most important cinematographic works from both Mexico and the world.
The theatre has eight screening rooms which show both Mexican and foreign films at a cost of 40 pesos ($3.10) for the general public and 25 pesos ($1.95) for students.
My friends and I braved the remnants of Hurricane Karl as it drenched Mexico City, and headed up north of the Viveros de Coyoacán to the theatre. We had investigated the night’s screenings and tentatively decided on Hunger(2008) about an IRA political prisoner’s hunger strike in 1981. Upon arriving, however, we found that the show was sold-out and so we somewhat hurriedly chose to see El Infierno (2010) instead.
El Infierno is the latest film by Luis Estrada, the director/writer who created La Ley de Herodes (1999), and was released just in time for the Bicentenary of Mexico’s Independence which was September 15 of this year. The dark comedy (heavy emphasis on dark) follows the life of Benjamín “El Benny” García as he returns to his small Mexican town after spending 20 years in the United States. He returns to find his town plagued by violence and torn apart by warring drug cartels, a condition reflective of Mexico in general. At first shocked and resistant to the new reigning industry, Benny is eventually pulled into the narco trade and gangster lifestyle. Estrada, whose film La Ley de Herodes was a biting commentary on Mexico’s broken political system, exposes many of the country’s most critical and current problems in his latest film: economic desperation of rural Mexico, political-narco connections, police corruption, U.S.-Mexico relations regarding narco-trafficking, and of course the seemingly endless cycle of violence spurred by the drug trade. Estrada criticizes the bicentennial fervor that has enveloped the country with the film’s tag-line “Mexico 2010: nada que celebrar” (“Mexico 2010: Nothing to celebrate”).
Estrada explained his reasons for making the film:
“Hace 10 años hice La Ley de Herodes, porque creía que el País estaba muy mal, que no podía estar peor. Pero, ahora veo que estamos peor que antes y, por eso, tuve la necesidad de contar esta historia y llamar la atención, sobre todo de los jóvenes, de lo que está pasando.” (My English translation: “Ten years ago I made La Ley de Herodes because I believed that our country was in bad shape, that it couldn’t be worse. But, now I see that we are worse than we were before and, for this reason, I needed to tell the story and call attention, above all to the the youth, to what is happening in our country.”)
Without giving away too much of the plot, I want to say a few things about the experience of seeing the film in a Mexican theatre surrounded by mostly Mexicans. The film is horrifically violent. Fingers, lips, and tongues are hacked off with machetes. Beatings and electric shock torture are favored tools of the narcos before their victims are shot point-blank in the head. Children are killed. It is a type of violence that neither I nor my friends have experienced in American movies. It is also a type of violence now, however unfortunately, very familiar to Mexicans. The drug violence that has swept the country in the past year is a type previously unknown to the vast majority of Mexicans, and is now broadcast daily in newscasts and on the front pages of newspapers (which are pinned up to be read y passerby at nearly every corner newsstand). In the U.S. we are largely unexposed to the terrifyingly rapid escalation of violence that has rocked Mexico and its citizens.
Thus it became very clear very quickly that this film was extremely well-made for a specific audience (Mexicans), of which neither I nor my friends are a part. As fellow film-goers on all sides of us were laughing uproariously at the film, neither I nor my friends found much humor where humor was intended. We shot each other half-confused and half-horrified glances each time our neighbors would collapse into hysterics. Beyond clearly not possessing the correct cultural experiences to laugh at the protagonist’s pocho (broken Mexican) and American-influenced ways, the most surprising manifestation of our obvious cultural disconnect was found in our reaction to the violence. The rest of the theatre found unending humor in the violence. And this clearly made the movie much more enjoyable for them than for us, as we spent the majority of the film vaguely horrified. Additionally, both the film’s culmination and its message regarding confession was confusing for us (again, as Americans we clearly did not possess the correct cultural cues). The ending offered us neither happy satisfaction (on one extreme) nor irony (on the other), and instead landed in some sort of decidedly unsatisfying limbo. The film’s message regarding the culture of confession/snitching and the audience’s reaction to related jokes was similarly confusing to us.
So while La Ley de Herodes was a film I (as an American) enjoyed immensely and understood vis-a-vis my study of Mexican political history, I was unequipped to fully understand or enjoy El Infierno. I think at the root of this cultural disconnect was that, while I can read all I want about the narco violence and narco culture that has swept Mexico, I had not experienced the violence in the same collective and individual ways that had my fellow movie-goers.
So for my friends and I, the act of seeing El Infierno in a Mexican theatre was probably more instructive about the Mexican experience of the narco wars than the movie itself.
(You should still see it if you can.)
Sarah Farr is PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The views expressed in this blog and on this website are my own.