Not widely seen in the United States, S tense, quasi-eat-the-rich debut, “Workforce” (“Mano de obra”), followed a group of construction workers frustrated with their latest patron’s dehumanizing treatment after one of them dies on the job.
Fed up, the deceased’s brother takes over one of the properties he and his comrades worked on, turning it into a sort of commune. All of their families can live rent free inside a luxurious house that would otherwise be unattainable for them. But that seemingly idyllic setup soon begins to elicit the worst of human behavior: faced with the new circumstances these once powerless individuals get a taste of how power and greed can corrupt anyone.
Zonana’s even more incendiary follow-up, “Heroic” (“Heróico), shares some of the “Workforce” DNA in that it observes the corrosion of a person’s spirit inside an institution that perpetuates corruption and abuse under the guise of a shared goal. Like the workers in his first outing, the valiant protagonist here comes from an economically underprivileged context, which makes him an ideal prey for those eager to capitalize on his need.
Lanky, Indigenous eighteen-year-old Luis Nuñez Rosales (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) has enlisted in the Military Academy of Mexico, not precisely out of conviction but because the ordeal comes with medical insurance for his diabetic mother (the always great Mónica Del Carmen). With an almost clinical and detached eye, Zonana and cinematographer Carolina Costa capture the initial process of eroding the recruits’ sense of self in wide shots that emphasize communal vulnerability: a naked bodily inspection and a humiliating welcoming speech from their immediate superior, Sergeant Eugenio Sierra (Fernando Cuautle).
Within days the first days of grueling training, Sierra takes an interest in Luis after noticing his shooting precision—his now absent father, a military man, taught him. But some of his fellow potros or colts, as those with higher rank refer to the freshmen, instead become targets of vicious mistreatment. Yet, the desire to belong, to not stir the pot, prevents others from speaking up. It’s through Luis’ chats with his new friends from similar communities that we learn he understands the Nahuatl language but refuses to speak it, likely for fear of being discriminated in an already draining environment.
That the compound resembles an ancient Aztec temple is a clear nod to the country’s performative appreciation for its Indigenous past, while the marginalization of Indigenous groups continues to be the norm. Late in Luis’ descent into the bowels of this rotting organization, a general who shares his Indigenous background suggests he values his chance there since out in the civilian there are few opportunities for people like them. The exchange notes how in a county plagued with inequality the military represents one of the few avenues for upward mobility and prestige for the marginalized.
As the hazing escalates into full-blown assault, and Sierra demands Luis joins him and his closest accomplices in illicit activities, Zonana measuredly introduces nightmarish vignettes that grant us access into Luis deteriorating mental state. He dreams himself walking through this complex, sometimes in full regalia, going after a mother whose child has gone missing or running after one his bullied buddies he did not defend.
And yet, those haunting snippets from his subconscious pale in comparison to the clips of abhorrent violence that Sierra and his team often watch on a cell phone. Only the harrowing audio of victims pleasing reaches us, but that’s enough to understand how desensitize to violence these young men have become. Even more troubling is that we can’t be certain who carried out the recorded horror: the cartels or other military men like them.
“You are not here to think, asshole. You’re here to follow orders,” Sergeant Eugenio says when asking Luis to commit a heinous act. A dangerously affable Cuautle, seen in Michel Franco’s controversial “New Order,” personifies the cycles of abuse of power and impunity. He’s neither the worst nor the first, but the product of endemic to the institution. If Luis ever did believe that there was honor and a duty toto protect the rights and interests of the citizens in the military profession, those illusions vanish with every atrocious revelation.
Over the course of this blistering portrait of distorted manhood, Sandoval Carbajal’s piercing eyes brew in disappointment and rage. The young actor’s stoic demeanor devolves into a panicked state that his character cannot express. As terrified and angry as he is about the irregularities permitted and excused, he must conceal them as long as possible. Striking for its understatement, Sandoval Carbajal’s turn maintains its rigor even as Luis must tragically take page from his tormentors’ book in order to indeed become somewhat “heroic.”
One particular dream sequence shows Luis jumping into the abyss, an image that carries obvious visual parallels to the dubious tale of the Niños Heroes, a group of teenaged cadets who fought at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1947s, one of whom was said to have launched himself from the castle’s tower wrapped in the Mexican flag before it could be captured by the American invaders. With an eagle by his side, this imagine of Luis unmasks the pride for the homeland that on paper should guide these soldiers as a blatant falsehood professed to attain impunity and operate with personal gain as foremost motivation.
Films about the U.S. military, where a segment of the population still perceives both active members and veterans as honorable members of society, exist on a different ideological wavelength, even if it’s also true that in this country the armed forces actively try to enlist kids from disadvantages communities. In Mexico, the public is often as afraid of authority figures as they are of organized crime, because corruption has infiltrated all spheres.
Zonana’s challenging works may have trouble finding audiences, but hopefully this time around a brave distributor sees beyond both the implied and occasionally explicit brutality. In a tight and precise 88 minutes, the filmmaker unpacks moral conundrums and deeply rooted issues not in heady hypothetical terms but through frighteningly feasible scenarios. The writer-director’s unflinchingly searing indictment of patriotism, groupthink, and masculinity is sure to leave viewers purposefully rattled.
“Heroic” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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