Wednesday, October 16, 2013

EL INFIERNO: Luis Estrada & Jaime Sampietro's black, comedic portrait of the state of Mexico

EL INFIERNO (the title literally means hell, and the movie metaphorically takes us there) is a very long, straight-ahead tale of a middle-aged man named Benny (played by the well-known Mexican actor Damián Alcázar) who returns from the U.S. (he's been deported) to his little home-town in Mexico and begins to fit right into the completely sleazy, horrific, drug addled, greedy, murderous, lascivious life-style of the place. Even his old mom, who initially berates her son for never having written to her over the 20 years he was gone -- "We thought you were dead!" -- soon enough capitulates to the pricey gifts he offers her. In fact, she asks for more.

To anyone who remotely follows current and past Mexican history, none of this will come as a shock. The real surprise of the movie is how thuddingly obvious it is from first to last in presenting us this tale of an already venal and uncaring guy who becomes even more so when offered the least opportunity. The tone taken by Luis Estrada,(shown at right) the director /co-writer (with Jaime Sampietro), is one of only slight exaggeration, which produces the comedic sense, while the events parading in front of us quickly turn that comedy pitch black.

Alcázar (above and on poster top) is a very talented actor, here given little chance to shown his range or abilities. He's perfectly OK so far as he is allowed to go. But this is no great distance, and it's traversed in mostly baby steps. For a much better example of Mexican black comedy, see the terrific film Herod's Law (from 1999) to discover what Alcázar -- along with Estrada and Sampietro, who, with a couple of other writers, also made this movie -- can accomplish.

In that earlier film, they gave us something at once rich and strange, while also shocking and surprising. Here, perhaps in order to reach the lowest common denominator, they cross every "t" and dot each "i" -- resulting in a screenplay and finished movie that you can pretty much write-as-you-go. At one point, our "hero" asks his friend Cochiloco (Joaquín Cosio, above, right) "Aren't you afraid of going to hell?" Comes the reply: "Hell is right here." Ay -- profound!)

What Benny finds in his home-town is a dead brother, along with the brother's widow and son; his best friends now all working for the local drug lord; and only one person (his kindly godfather) remains free from the taint of Mexico's manure. (As to how this nice guy managed to avoid the smell, we're not made privy.)

As Benny negotiates his new role as "enforcer" for the drug cartel's main man (and his dysfunctional family), he thrives on its perks, while trying to retain his "humanity." Sure. Along the way we note the collaboration of the local police, the Church, politicians, and all else -- with betrayal, somewhere along the line, forever the name of the game.

There's a lot of violence here, though it barely begins to compare with Oliver Stone's Savages, to cite but one of our recent super-violent films. And because the tone is somewhat comic, that violence is somehow made easier to take, which is exactly the effect that it should not have. The darkly funny conclusion promises, undoubtedly correctly, that poor Mexico will continue to experience, down the generations, more (and more and more) of the same.

You can view El Infierno (known in some quarters as El Narco), running two hours and 29 minutes, on Netflix streaming, and you can also view Herod's Law (under its Spanish title, La ley de Herodes, on DVD, also from Netflix and/or other sources.

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