Netflix’s new show doesn’t glamorize the drug trade. It still bears Hollywood’s mark
Based on Ginger Thompson’s 2017 oral history, “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” “Somos.” tells the story of a 2011 mass killing in Allende, in the Mexican state of Coahuila about 40 miles from the Texas border town of Eagle Pass. (The period is part of the title, for declarative existential emphasis: “We are.”)
In 2018, Thompson’s tapes and reporting, originally co-published by ProPublica and National Geographic, became the basis of an Audible podcast, “The Making of a Massacre,” which also used actors and theatrical underscoring. Created by James Schamus, Ang Lee’s trusty screenwriter (“The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hulk” and more) and written in collaboration with Mexican screenwriter Monika Revilla (Netflix’s “The House of Flowers”) and novelist Fernanda Melchor (“Hurricane Season”), “Somos.” frankly fictionalizes in its pursuit of the truth — an attempt to represent the spirit of the thing, if not the letter.
Journalist Ana María Solozábal is investigating the jailhouse activities of a notorious trafficker inside a Bogotá prison when she learns from an inmate that her father, a judge who was assassinated by the cartels when she was a young girl, may have been linked to those same cartels in unsavory ways.
The short version is that, having obtained inside intelligence on the leaders of the deadly Zetas cartel, the Drug Enforcement Administration shared information with Mexican counterparts, who passed it on to the leaders themselves, brothers Miguel and Omar Treviño. As the traffickers who provided the intel fled across the border with $5 million of Zetas money, gangs arrived in Allende and kidnapped and killed anyone suspected of betrayal, along with family members and people who happened to be in the way. It was not a surgical strike but a battering ram.
Premiering Wednesday on Netflix, “Somos.” follows the lines of that story, even as it fills them in with invented people and plot lines. It is a sprawling affair, stitched together from intertwining threads; most of the characters involved are working through quotidian issues that, but for the deus ex historica awaiting them in the last of the series’ six episodes, might support a drama that had nothing to do with a massacre. A naturalistic human-interest series set in a Mexican small town is probably nothing Netflix would open on the same day in “more than 190 countries,” like “Somos.,” if it would even jump at the chance to make one. Still, it bucks a longstanding trend in drug-trade stories by looking closely at the victims rather than glamorizing the victimizers, and that in itself deserves a salute.
The nature of the source material combined with the nature of making moving pictures almost assures that “Somos.” will be drawn to tropes of Hollywood (and New Hollywood) westerns: the town riddled with corruption; the rancher who won’t give up his property and who finds his fences cut and cattle mysteriously ill; noble old souls making a last stand against a hard new world, rifles in hand; the brothel or saloon, where a powerful bad guy’s minions lounge importantly; a handsome villain, corrupt behind a veneer of respectability, making a move on a heroine; the honest civil servant trying to do his job in the face of their threats and falling off the wagon when he fails; the happy party scene as attackers move in; a lone figure pushing a cart through an empty street just before everything explodes. All that’s missing is the tumbleweed.
Schamus cast nonprofessional actors in several important roles, and their contained performances reinforce an apparent intention to keep things low-key as long as possible. (Most of the professional actors rein it in as well.) Notable among the amateurs are Jimena Pagaza as Nancy, a high-spirited school girl with a head on her shoulders, modern thoughts in her head and a gift for kicking field goals; Jesús Sida as Paquito, a sort of luckless town simpleton; Natalia Martínez as Aracely, the mother of his child; and Salvador Montenegro as faithful ranch foreman Silverio. In general, the women make a stronger impression; it is a theme of the series that men are trouble.
Part of a growing cadre of Latino writers speaking out, staffers say the project came with a low budget, poor pay and a brutal schedule.
From Thompson’s article and other reports, it would seem that the integration of the cartel and the town was more complex than represented here, where the good and the bad characters mostly fall on one side or the other of the line. As Héctor Moreno, a criminal middle manager pressured into working for the DEA, Armando Silva does get some breadth, and even humor, into his part, though you would not mistake him for a hero, while Jero Medina is intermittently sympathetic as Benjamin, the aimless son of rancher Isidro (Fernando Larrañaga) drunkenly stumbling back and forth across the line. On the good side, vivid work is done by Iliana Donatlán and Arelí González as sisters Irene and Erika, respectively, whose work (emergency services, vet) link them to the larger story, and Mercedes Hernández as Aracely’s mother, Doña Chayo, a pushcart vendor who sees but is not seen. Because you know from the start that bad things are going to happen — it says so on the title card that opens the series, which goes on to give you a taste of what lies ahead before flashing back a bit — you just keep your fingers crossed that the characters you like, and there are many to choose from, get out of the series alive.
Directed by Álvaro Curiel and Mariana Chenillo, with crisp cinematography by Ignacio Prieto, the series is at once well constructed and slightly less than convincing. When A True Story That Needs to Be Told meets This Would Make a Great Movie, the movie always wins. And though article and miniseries both lean hard on the fact that none of this would have happened without a bad decision by an American official, it is weakly argued on-screen — or, unlike most of the rest of the series, too strongly argued — undercut by a caricature Bad Boss (Dave Collins) who pronounces the l’s in Allende, Ugly American-style.
The finale is rough going, though the death and destruction for the most part take place at a distance or off-screen; the filmmakers wisely do not overplay the violence. They don’t need to, after a five-episode build-up. Because “Somos.” doesn’t so much resolve as just cease, like gunfire, one might well wonder what we’ve learned here, beyond that a good person can do only so much in the face of an army carrying guns and machetes. And, meaning no disrespect to the hard work of those who put it together, one may just feel glad that it’s over.
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
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