So far, the friendly, polite Mexican laborer, Benny, had been sent back by the border patrol to his dusty home in Mexico after 20 years in the U.S., told "don't come back," and was then welcomed home by his dear, old mother with a whalloping slap across the face. Then Benny learns his younger brother, who he had promised to send for while away in the States, earned the name El Diablo, the devil, while Benny was away, before being killed in the narco turf wars of two look-alike brothers who hate each in the way that only family members can.
When the affable and gentle Benny needs money to bail El Diablo's son out of jail, Benny's childhood friend, also turned mafioso, takes him to his patron's ranch to get him a job in what seems to be the only trade visible besides bar-tending or patching up tires: running drugs. We need a guy in a white hat to come into this picture, I said to myself on the couch.
The old mafia don and his wife, who's the brains of the business, have a living room the size of a museum. The photos of the don and his wife taken with Mexico's ex-president Vicente Fox and shown kneeling piously receiving the blessing of Pope John were the first clues telling me where this film was headed: dangerous and dangerously-funny territory, as in "oh-no-you're-not-going-there." Maybe Benny's old mother's slapping him to say hello was a hint.
When Benny faints at his first mob-style execution, I sat up straight on the sofa and said, "oh-hell-yes-you-are-going-there!" A film about a complex character, a man caught in the combine. And though I knew where he would end, I was glued to the screen wondering what I would learn in the story of his journey. Thoughts of white hats were far from my mind now.
It's a modern Godfather story, complete with betrayals and loyalties, corrupt officials and lots of blood and machine-gun fire. What makes this an A film, and not a B, guns-n-tits shoot 'em up, is the dark humor and brutal honesty of the movie.
El Infierno takes you to the underbelly of the beast of our times: the centuries-old resentments of the Natives against the Whites, as who Benny is perceived by the native Oaxacan military-trained soldiers-turned narcos with whom he works. Mexico's schizophrenic views of women as either virgins or prostitutes are turned upside down in characters who have no recourse but to think only of themselves, such as Benny's mother, the knitting shop-keeper who is bought off with drugs to watch out for the mob, or the wife of the don, who is a movie unto herself. She is the more-cruel-than-anyone-woman behind the narco-throne who is surely to blame for her son's being gay, not to mention being murdered.
I'm strangely optimistic for Mexico's future after watching this film. I confess I'm probably myopic in my love for Mexico, but I'm optimistic that a film like this can be made with funding help from the Mexican government. This is not to say after it was completed, the film was later supported by the government, which it was not. I'm mainly optimistic because I'm reminded once again by El Infierno that the arts have a strong role to play in making life--if not better for us--then clearer for us to see.
Art helps us to observe what the dusty clouds of sharp braking trucks and the commotion and business of everyday life obscure. Picasso with Guernica, Steinbeck with The Grapes of Wrath. The Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression, each seen more easily. Leading us to remember and not make the same mistakes twice, hopefully.
Here in El Infierno is the role of drugs, now entering the lives of off the shelf, average Mexican kids, cops, and even the man at the hotel desk with his own meth addiction. Here is the stereotype of the self-less, sacrificing mother exposed as empty by Benny's mother, who as she blesses him asks for his new gold watch and for a Walkman like her neighbor's. Here is the handsome "good cop" federal agent promising immunity and protection in return for information such as offered thugs in America, and Benny falling in his trap. The trip through the combine is nearly ended. Here is the childhood friendship of two boys who lovingly call each other 'mi' or my when referring to each other. "Mi Benny" is really no one's, not wanted by the U.S., which has tossed him back, not Mexico's, who sees him only as another grunt with a strong back.
When Benny finally takes his place at the fancy stretch of cemetery mini-chapels that are set up when men in his family die, we see through the veil of the supposed foundations of Mexican culture, that his religion and faith have also failed him.
Benny, who was always polite, waited for the patriotic orators to complete their speeches on Mexico's Independence Day when the names of Mexican heroes sound hollow against the fact that more people have died in the drug war there than in the entire 30 year Revolution, which surpasses in carnage that of our own Civil War. Benny waited for the crowd to finish singing the national hymn before paying his respects with an automatic weapon to the assembled powerful elite standing above the celebrating crowd.
For all the seemingly never-ending cycles of misery of greed and drug-born corruption this film exposes, my optimism and my laughter at the irony of the film's story and of its making are my rewards for watching El Infierno.
After the commercial success of the film in Mexico and its easy availability over Netflix now, if the government regrets its funding of the project, that's too bad. The cat's out of the bag. Anyway, El Infierno is too funny and too accurate to censor. Though, if the brilliant and brave filmmaker ever asks for funding for his work from the government again, he might be told, as was Benny when he was booted out by the border patrol, "don't come back."
The link below is to the full on-line version, without subtitles.
I would try to see El Infierno on Netflix, with subtitles, if only for the fun of watching how many ways the word "cabron" is translated.
Also puzzled at the translation of "mas loco que una cabra" (crazier than a female goat) to "crazier than a shit house rat." Overall, surprised and grateful thanks to the translator, the writer, the director, actors and everyone associated with the making of this amazing and brave film.
Good luck in finding a new job, too, to the government official who approved its funding.