Now available to international audiences on Netflix, The Perfect Dictatorship is Mexican director Luis Estrada’s latest satire on his country’s politics. The film’s title comes from a quote by Nobel-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa about Mexico’s historically dominant (and currently ruling) political party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party). While the PRI and current Peña Nieto administration are certainly targets, the film offers broader messages on how the media, alongside drugs and money, can rot a country from within.
Though the man isn’t mentioned by name, a rather amusing caricature of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s current president, kicks off our story. When the immaculately groomed, gaffe-prone onscreen President of Mexico makes racist comments in a meeting with the US ambassador, his administration must perform damage control. For that they turn to TV MX, a leading TV station (which parodies the real-life Televisa). In response, TV MX distracts the public from Señor Presidente’s gaffe by releasing a video of Carmelo Vargas, governor of Mexico’s poorest state, taking bribes.
Vargas (played by Estrada regular Damián Alcázar), is angered but not defeated. Sensing opportunity, the thoroughly corrupt governor goes to TV MX and “mortgages” his state treasury to bribe the station into being his personal PR brigade. Now, it’s up to TV MX to undo the damage they caused Vargas, but not only that — they’re also tasked with propelling the governor to the presidency in Mexico’s next election. To fulfill this goal, the station dispatches Carlos Rojo, a young, upstart producer, to be Vargas’ resident spin doctor. Now, Carlos and TV MX must use all the creativity and (ill-gotten) resources at their disposal to make the devilish Vargas seem like a saint.
Kidnapped children, prostitutes, and narco-traffickers abound as the film takes us for a hilarious, cynical ride. In classic Estrada fashion, the humor is pitch black. Vargas’ immorality and corruption are so flagrant that they’re laughable. But maybe he isn’t the movie’s true villain; maybe he’s just a part of a bigger production. As Carlos’ boss at TV MX declares, “we made this president” — and there’s no reason they can’t “make” another one with Vargas. It’s not the rough and tumble backwater narco-politicians who call the shots here, it’s the pale-skinned, effete TV producers from Mexico City. Politicians are bought and sold, auditioned and cast.
Unfortunately, the farcical state of The Perfect Dictatorship isn’t so far from the truth. Estrada begins the film with a cautionary message: “in this story, the names are fictitious; the facts, suspiciously true; any similarity with reality is not mere coincidence”. Corruption and media collusion in Latin American politics remain a fact of everyday life. One of the most recent revelations on this front is the case of Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian hacker who’s accused of helping to influence numerous Latin American elections, including Pena Nieto’s, through the manipulation of both social and traditional media. It’s as if fact follows fiction.
The role of media in politics and corruption is nothing new nor exclusively Latin American though. This makes The Perfect Dictatorship more accessible to international audiences, but also can make it seem just like a modernized Mexican remake of the 1997 American film Wag the Dog. Indeed, certain plot elements, like kidnapping little girls or politicians cavorting with escorts, feel somewhat un-creative. Nevertheless, the film’s general execution, and the immense local flavor it brings, still make it stand tall on its own.
Luis Estrada bites hard yet again with The Perfect Dictatorship. compared with his last film Infierno, this one is probably less violent and more palatable to wider audiences. With its national scale and ability to elicit loud laughs, The Perfect Dictatorship is worth a watch. And don’t wait, because if what’s happening now in America is any precedent, maybe Mexican politics will get so crazy that the film begins to pale in comparison!
The Perfect Dictatorship (Spanish: La dictadura perfecta) — Mexico. Directed by Luis Estrada. Dialog in Spanish. Running time 2hr 23min. First released October 2014. Starring Damián Alcázar, Alfonso Herrera, and Joaquín Cosío.