MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The Mexican contender for top honors at this year’s Cannes Film festival is a brutal depiction of the country’s poverty and the gangland carnage it's helped spawn.
The initial signs have been good: Director Amat Escalante's latest film “Heli” received a 15-minute ovation when it was shown in the French Mediterranean city on Thursday.
The first of 18 films contending for the coveted Palme D'Or prize to be shown at the festival — which runs through May 26 — “Heli” follows the story of a struggling autoworker whose younger sister draws him into confrontation with local gangsters and paramilitary police in central Guanajuato state.
Echoing daily atrocities in Mexico, the film opens with a body hanging from an overpass and later shows a gangster cooking the amputated penis of a rival.
Nevertheless, reviewers say the film carries a hopeful message about Mexicans' ability to weather their current travails.
“Heli may be the most optimistic film you will ever see in which one young man sets another’s genitals on fire,” critic Robbie Collin wrote in the British paper The Telegraph.
“No one knows what horrors and provocations might lie around the corner, but once you have sat and watched another man’s penis being flambéed, you rather feel you can take on anything.”
The film’s storyline stubbornly clashes with the positive image President Enrique Peña Nieto is trying to spin for Mexico, whose largely low-wage manufacturing economy has grown steadily even as the gangster violence has killed at least 70,000 people and left as many as 25,000 others missing in recent years.
"The reality on the ground in Mexico is actually worse than what I show in the film," Escalante, 34, told a news conference Thursday.
"I wanted to examine violence by putting it back in its context rather than simply showing it,” he added, “and to focus specifically on how some people cause it while others are witnesses.
“Heli” is one of 20 films selected from more than 1,800 worldwide to compete this year for the top Palme D'Or award, and the only selection from Latin America. It's the third of Escalante's three feature films to be shown at Cannes. All employ non-professional actors and depict the seedier side of modern Mexico.
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Escalante's film is competing with offerings from Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers and Roman Polanski.
Escalante, who lives in Guanajuato, is a protege of Carlos Reygadas, who won best director at Cannes last year for his film, “Post Tenebras Lux” (Light After Darkness) despite loud boos from the audience during the showing.