"Heli" is a stunning piece of filmmaking. It's a hypnotic, starkly beautiful, often disturbing drama that puts a working-class Mexican family in the cross hairs of its country's drug war. Although the criminal element drives much of the movie's lyrical story, one which unfolds in distinct yet organic chapters, the film is also a reflective, deeply humane portrayal of duty, love and longing.
Heli Silva (Armando Espitia) is a young auto plant worker living in central Mexico with his wife, Sabrina (Linda Gonzalez), and their baby boy, along with Heli's father (Ramón Álvarez) and 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). Bubbling beneath the surface of the family's shaky peace is the covert, starry-eyed romance between Estela and Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a nascent police cadet five years her senior.
When Estela and Beto hatch a half-baked plan to run off and get married, Beto steals from a stash of army-seized drugs to fund their journey. What follows is a nightmare involving revenge, abduction and murder as rogue cops and drug traffickers upend the innocent Heli's little world, sucking the poor guy and his loved ones into a brutal vortex. Warning: A rather unthinkable torture scene may cross the line for some viewers.
The physical and emotional toll these events take on Heli, Sabrina and Estela unfolds throughout the film's masterfully etched second half, which includes further bursts of violence and the iffy involvement of local detectives.
Director Amat Escalante, who co-wrote the movie's spare, profound script with Gabriel Reyes, won the directing award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Judges there clearly responded to the movie's deliberate pace and neorealist sensibility as well as to Lorenzo Hagerman's painterly digital lensing. It was a bold, worthy choice.
Bleak and unforgiving, "Heli" may not be every moviegoer's idea of entertainment or even escape. But for cinéastes willing to challenge their comfort zones, it's a must.
MPAA rating: None; in Spanish with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.