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On eve of Mexico's bicentennial, film 'El Infierno' is a blunt political provocation

September 13, 2010 |  3:39 pm

There is vengeance and betrayal, greed and lust, a prodigal son and an heir lost.

The new Mexican film "El Infierno," by director Luis Estrada, is packed with plot elements straight out of high Greek or Shakespearean drama. Yet in its acid portrayal of how the drug-trafficking business leads to the downfall of a single man, and then an entire town, the movie plays out as absurd and darkly comedic, the sort of effect mastered by the Coen brothers in films like "Fargo" or "No Country for Old Men."

Watch the official trailer for "El Infierno," in Spanish, embedded above. (Readers are warned that the trailer is graphic. The film's title is somewhat inelegantly translated into English as "Hell.")

It gets under the skin. Throughout a screening on Sunday night at a cineplex in downtown Mexico City, as the characters in "El Infierno" descended into an out-of-control cycle of violence and bloodshed, the audience couldn't stop laughing. The laughter was genuine but uneasy. "El Infierno" is a fictional depiction of a real-life drama that engulfs Mexico day after day, a drama over which the average Mexican feels little control.

The story follows Benny Garcia, a man who is kicked back to his poor rural town somewhere in northern Mexico after 20 years of living in the United States as an illegal immigrant. He returns to learn that his brother died in violent circumstances. Little by little, seeing no other options for work, he picks up where his brother left off, joining the local drug-trafficking group.

The money starts rolling in for Benny, but as he sinks deeper into the narco trade, the bodies start piling up around him. Throughout "El Infierno," corruption and greed seem to infect even the most innocent of character types, not just police and priests, but also the aged and young teens.

The movie's ripped-from-the-headlines feel is stark. "El Infierno" depicts acts of extreme violence that have actually occurred in Mexico's drug war. People are beheaded, and then heads are rolled into a public space. Hit men chop off enemies' ears or fingers, or appear stuffing their victims into vats of acid. One man is left dead on a roadside sitting against a tree and wearing a sombrero, just like a murdered police officer was left in July 2008 in the state of Sinaloa (link in Spanish, with photo).

Produced with heavy government funding, the release of "El Infierno" just before the start of massive celebrations for Mexico's bicentennial of independence is bluntly provocative. One scene depicts the town's main capo in friendly photographs with former Mexican President Vicente Fox and Pope John Paul II. Another scene in the office of a corrupt federal investigator takes a direct swipe at President Felipe Calderon, whose framed portrait hangs on a wall while the investigator makes a direct call to a drug lord.

Estrada has tread politically controversial territory before. His 1999 film "Herod's Law" tackles the culture of corruption of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico as a quasi-authoritarian state more than 70 years. "I'm surprised that 10 years later I realize we're much worse off," the filmmaker told the AFP.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video credit: YouTube

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