J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Narco Cultura: Violent Accordion Music

It makes gangster rap sound polite and progressive.  Narcocorrido is a virulent cousin of cajunto, lionizing the drug traffickers and assassins terrorizing Mexico.  Banned in their home country, narcocorridos are largely based in American border cities and do a brisk business through legitimate American retailers. (Indeed, Sam Walton would not be happy to hear what his stores now carry.) Shaul Schwartz observes the state of underground narcocorrido culture and the violence it celebrates in Narco Cultura (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Raised in Los Angeles, Edgar Quintero fetishizes narcoterrorism on stage as the front man of up-and-coming narcocorrido band BuKnas de Culiacan.  Riccardo Soto sees the fruits of narcocorrido culture every night as a crime scene investigator.  On the plus side, Soto’s skills are in high demand.  Unfortunately, he and his colleagues must wear balaclavas to protect their identity when responding to a call.  For obvious reasons, the dedicated family had tendered his resignation, but his sense of duty compelled him to return six months later.

Almost entirely observational in his approach, Schwartz never asks Soto for a review of Quintero’s latest CD.  Nor does he confront Quintero with crime scene photos of the latest innocent bystanders cut down by his idols.  Presumably, Schwartz was concerned about preserving his subjects’ trust and access, as well as maintaining a consistent tone.  However, this obvious avenue of inquiry forgone casts a long, distracting shadow over the film.

At one point, Schwartz revisits the blinged-out cemeteries previously seen in Natalia Almada’s El Velador, but Cultura has considerably more get-up-and-go than its defiantly oblique predecessor.  Things definitely happen in Schwartz’s film, but it is dominated by the bloody aftermaths of the cartels’ ruthless business rather than action per se.

The picture that emerges of a Mexico plagued by bloodshed and corruption is not pretty.  Frankly, it would have been an important wake-up call, but it may have come too late.  Watching the reckless aggression of the narcos, clearly abetted by crooked government officials, it appears Mexico is teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state.  Schwartz never bothers to seek any elusive solutions.  Who knows, maybe France can re-install the heir of Emperor Maximilian.

Narco Cultura is fully stocked with dramatic images, many of which approach the threshold of outright shocking.  Yet, the film is essentially a cinematic shrug, taking it all in, but never delving to deeply into the dysfunctional pop culture it documents.  Far superior to El Velador, but not nearly as emotionally engaging as Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero, Narco Cultura is still eye opening stuff, recommended for Lou Dobbs watchers when it opens this Friday (11/22) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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