By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 12, 2014 at 4:08PM
Some movies are designed to expose national problems by doing little more than illustrating their activist intentions. But two features opening stateside this week take more personal approaches.
Mexican director Amat Escalante's unnerving "Heli" explores the underbelly of his country's drug war through its reverberations for an innocent young couple, whose cursory involvement with a cocaine deal leads to a series of murders and other morbid developments. With more effective results, Iran's Mohammad Rasoulof's suspenseful "Manuscripts Don't Burn" focuses on the plight of an older generation, by tracking the country's censorship department as it cracks down on a group of journalists planning to publish a report about a botched assassination attempt.
Both "Heli" and "Manuscripts Don't Burn" contain scenes of brutal kidnappings and horrific torture, but only one of them manages to place the cruelty in context.
While "Heli" contains believable turns by Armando Espitia as the 17-year-old star and Andrea Vergara as his younger sister, its descent into morbid inevitability suffers from a simplistic dimension. Once the sister's boyfriend attempts to steal a cocaine package in a feeble attempt to fund their planned life on the lam, "Heli" devolves into a series of unnerving retributions. Chief among them: corrupt forces nab both Heli and the boyfriend, tie them up, and—in an abrupt act that generated heated chatter immediately following the movie's Cannes Film Festival premiere—light the boyfriend's genitals on fire. That's the worst image "Heli" offers up, but far from the last moment of suffering displayed in this consistently hopeless look at rural life south of the border.
Escalante's ability to punctuate the stillness of various scenes with such explicit savagery speaks to his command of the medium, but no amount of graphic extremes can rectify an overall emptiness to the story, which focuses too bluntly on the power of inflicting pain on sympathetic characters.
Rasoulof's tale, based on actual events from the nineties, offers a far more sophisticated portrait of persecution. A masterwork of understatement, the movie shifts between various older journalists—labeled merely "intellectuals" by the government authorities tracking them down—and the conflicted hitman forced to torture and murder them. While the writers evade tapped phone lines and the advances of various shadowy figures, they bicker amongst each other about the value of getting the story out there and the ensuing sacrifices being made in the process.
With their families' survival at risk, one by one they become compromised, but not without a palpable sense of rage; meanwhile, the weak-willed hired gun gripes about his own compromises for the sake of his sick child. Even the scheming overlord of the censorship office, who coldly goes through the motions to contain the story, has a history of doing time that suggests he works out of necessity rather than conviction. Nobody in this closed-minded system has it easy, but they keep fighting ahead, which prevents the movie from devolving into a pity party and instead transforms it into a captivating survival story.
Though its series of tense exchanges and disquieting portrayals of physical abuse, "Manuscripts Don't Burn" does such a thorough job of highlighting the tyranny in modern day Iran that its very existence represents a victory of creation—albeit one that does not arrive without sacrifice. Banned from his home country, Rasoulof currently resides in Europe, while the rest of the cast and crew are not named in any credits associated with the production for the sake of their safety.
That's unfortunate, because they're all first-rate, effectively conveying the claustrophobia of each scene. From the grey-haired writers desperately clinging to a radical spirit that faded long ago to the wide-eyed killer at the bottom of the totem pole, each man expresses a tragic disconnect between responsibility to their principles and immediate needs. "Fighting and change were 40 years ago," sighs one journalist. "That's over now." But he keeps at it anyway. "Should I just lay down and die?" he asks. That question hovers in the subtext of each scene.
Rasoulof compliments his ensemble's somber performances with a patient, clear-eyed approach familiar from his previous efforts. Yet while his last feature, the female-centric "Goodbye" (about an attorney vainly attempting to flee the country) foregrounded its heroine's urgency, "Manuscripts Don't Burn" is predominantly defined by despair. Many scenes have a ghostly quality that expresses the dissonance between the implied urgency of each moment and its less sensationalistic form. Evil acts, from surveillance to murder, unfold while the offending characters chow down on snacks. Dialogue between various feuding parties sometimes transitions into voiceover, highlighting the grief on their faces. Rasoulof populates numerous scenes with jarring jump cuts, as if the movie itself has been subjected to the censorship at its center.
But rather than relish in the stark proceedings, "Manuscripts Don't Burn" preys on its viewers' imagination, leaving several deaths and other dreary outcomes off-screen. In the unbearable tension of its final moments, the movie arrives at an expected destination, but the outcome stings more than anything preceding it. In a final shot that brings the reality of the situation into prominent focus, Rasoulof creates the sense that we're not only witnessing a bleak reality, but hovering inside of it, uncertain if the nightmare will ever end.
"Manuscripts Don't Burn": A
"Manuscripts Don't Burn" opens Friday in New York with a national expansion planned in the coming weeks. "Heli" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.