Amat Escalante won the best director gong at Cannes 2013 with this his 3rd feature set in his home country of Mexico. Heli tells the story of the eponymous “hero” (played by newcomer Armando Espitia) who works in the local car factory and lives with his father, sister, wife and baby. When his sister Estela (a very young Andrea Vergara) gets embroiled in her boyfriend Beto’s (Juan Eduardo Palacios) money making scheme things go horribly wrong for the whole family.
With its brutal and dispassionate opening Heli pulls no punches in showing us the dark and frightening reality for many Mexicans. Music is not used to create atmosphere nor is it needed for this is an unflinching film, almost documentary in its style of lighting and camera shots. The atmosphere is full of menace; Escalante throws in scenes of almost boring routine which offset the moments of terror but also help put you in the shoes of the protagonists, just people like you or me getting by every day the best they can. There are also some beautifully whimsical moments; notably Beto and Estela’s teenage romance conducted like most are in the backseat of a car.
This is a stark look at ordinary people living in a society where extraordinary things happen as a matter of course and people live with violence every day. There are some shocking scenes of torture; but you need to ask yourself why you are shocked and remind yourself that this fiction is based on fact.
I found the film both disturbing and moving; its images stay with you long after the credits have rolled. If you can face the grim truth of this film then it is well worth it.