Last time we reviewed a Mexican film, we took a look at Y Tu Mamá También — which we lauded for telling a uniquely Mexican story without drug lords or illegal immigration. Today we review another Mexican film — which we will laud for telling a uniquely Mexican story with drug lords and illegal immigration.
This film is El Infierno, meaning “hell” in English. Directed by Luis Estrada, famous for his dark political satires, the movie aims to depict narco-infested Mexico as nothing other than hell itself.
Our protagonist is Benjamin “Benny” Garcia, a former illegal immigrant to the United States. We say “former”, because he has just been deported back to his hometown of San Miguel Arcángel after 20 years in the land of the gringos. Upon his return, Benny discovers that many of the familiar figures of his youth are still around, except one: his younger brother. In Benny’s absence, his brother gained notoriety as a gangster named “El Diablo” until he was killed under circumstances that nobody wants to discuss in detail.
The life of a gangster, Benny soon discovers, is the only path available for those who want to make money in San Miguel Arcángel. Dead broke and his dreams of opening an English school dashed by reality, Benny hits up his old buddy “El Cochiloco” and begins working in the narcotics trade. A few deliveries and spent rounds later, Benny is a rich, confident man, swimming in the spoils of las drogas.
Alas, not everything is bright and happy in narco world. 20 years under American rule of law has made Benny soft, and he quickly becomes reacquainted with Mexico’s endemic corruption and violence. Everyone in the town, from the mayor to the priest, is complicit in the drug trade. The narcos operate with complete impunity, popping off disagreeable cops and using chainsaws to hack off snitches’ hands. Blood, death, and sex are have such a prominent role in the film that the Motion Picture Association of America decided to reward it with a NC-17 rating.
But beyond the violence, there is humor — pitch-black, hellish humor. For one, the corruption is so flagrant and pervasive that it is funny. When Benny and Cochiloco get pulled over by a dirty cop, the Americanized Benny instinctively cowers in fear, while Cochiloco banters and gives the cop amphetamines. The two also pay a visit to get their guns blessed by the local aviator-wearing priest, who looks more like a man of The Godfather than a man of God. For some reason, drug lords (ex. Pablo Escobar building churches) always find some ironic way to link piety and family values with their unsavory business — a fact that El Infierno ensures we do not forget.
What’s even more hilarious is that El Infierno was released on the eve of Mexico’s bicentennial in September 2010 and funded in part by a government commission created to celebrate the occasion. In fact, a bicentennial celebration features as the film’s ironic final scene, where a lineup of the town’s corrupt power players gather to shout “Viva Mexico” as happy fireworks and lights fill the night sky. Needless to say, the Mexican government was not very happy when the film came out.
In an interview, Estrada stated that he was “trying to invite Mexicans to a collective reflection”, to reassess the state of their country and question the official government narrative that the War on Drugs is going just fine, human rights abuses and persisting corruption be damned. Unfortunately, with events like the July 2015 escape of El Chapo, this need for reflection doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
At the very least, El Infierno achieves Estrada’s objective. It’s entertaining, it’s thoughtful, and, for better or for worse, highly relevant.
El Infierno (English: Hell)– Directed by Luis Estrada. First released September 2010. Running time 2hr 25min. Starring Damián Alcázar, Joaquín Cosio, and Ernesto Gómez Cruz.