Heroico Considers Institutional Violence

in 38th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Ivonete Pinto

The 38th Guadalajara International Film Festival confirms the organization’s focus on Latin American productions and on Mexican films, represented in several categories, that somehow reflect the society that generated them. The most awarded films in this edition, Heroico and Kenya, certainly fulfil this mandate: the first deals with a new soldier suffering brutality at the hands of the Mexican army; the second, with the murder of a trans woman and the fight against transphobia that her friends undertake.

The FIPRESCI jury, which judged the Mezcal section, which featured 11 fiction and documentary films, awarded the critics’ prize to Heroico, written and directed by David Zonana. In its justification, the jury stated that the film strongly exposes the links between patriarchal violence and militarist hegemony.

Sharp and unyielding, Heroico premiered last January at Sundance. Working its drama with the rhythms of a thriller, the film reaches into the bowels of a corrupt and corrupting military system of the sort that has emerged throughout Latin America for decades. We could say more: this is not another film about crimes committed by paramilitaries. Rather, it’s a film that reflects the institutional violence practiced by the Armed Forces of all countries, and Mexico in particular. This violence is not restricted to physical punishment: it also operates through forms of harassment and psychological pressure that leave scars.

Luís Muñoz (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) is an 18-year-old man from an indigenous community in Mexico’s countryside. His race already indicates his social condition, which in turn explains his urge to enter military school. His mother, seriously ill, depends on her son’s health insurance in order to be treated.

But upon arrival at military school, Luís begins to suffer harassment from an officer who co-opts him to carry out robberies with his gang of soldiers. Yes, unbelievable as it is, this is the situation. In an atmosphere of terror that recalls A Clockwork Orange (including a rape scene, but of shorter duration than that of Kubrick’s film), the group involves Luís, who even tries to give up his military career, but pressured by his mother, ends up on a path of no return.

Zonana’s script weighs in on the representation of these soldiers, going so far as to suggest a sexual interest of the officer towards the aspiring soldier. Therefore, it’s understood that the political stance of the film throws all its strength into criticizing the army, sometimes explicitly, sometimes through implcation. In this regard, it’s worth emphasizing the film’s ability to express Luís’s acceptance of the superior officer’s harassment. Using very tight shots of Luís, we perceive his discomfort, his uncertainty as to how to react. In addition to his subaltern condition, the film does not let us forget that Luís has no way out. And his “heroism” emerges, in the end, via the only means he had access to.

The film displays commendable courage as it brings to the screen an absolutely negative and despicable image of the Mexican army. In doing so, David Zonana is talking about the armed forces of all Latin America, marked by military coups with the bloodiest levels of repression. In our historical moment, where the military, mainly in Brazil, are approaching politics to regain the power they had during dictatorships, this is a welcome polemic. The military were and are involved in all sorts of corruption and represent what is most harmful to Latin America’s fragile democratic systems.

The courage to take on this criticism in Heroico is surprising. The director had already addressed social issues in Mexico in Mano de obra (2019), which deals with the exploitation of labour in construction. However, Heroico may face obstacles in Zonana’s country for playing in a wasp nest. With the current centrist government, and with the projection that the Guadalajara Festival will give it, the film should find a satisfactory distribution and reach its audience.

Ivonete Pinto
Edited by José Teodoro