Amat Escalante became the third Mexican to receive the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday. The filmmaker was honored for his drug-war drama Heli. Escalante’s friend and mentor Carlos Reygadas won the prize for Post Tenebras Lux last year, while countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu received the award for Babelin 2006.
The 34-year-old, who has an American mother, a Mexican father and was born in Barcelona by chance while his parents were on a trip there, applauded the “brave” decision by the Steven Spielberg-headed Official Selection jury to honor the film.
Heli tells the story of a family trapped in a violent cycle of crime and revenge, and does not scrimp on the graphic details. One torture scene includes a close-up of a man having his testicles burnt.
Escalante has dismissed criticism that the violence in the film is excessive. “What sense does it have not to show the violence so the viewer doesn’t suffer, when it is not like that in real life?” he argued.
Escalante is not so happy that people are taking the film as a portrait of current life in Mexico. “True, it takes place in Mexico,” he says. “There is violence every day. But nothing has ever happened to me, and I live there. I’m not saying Mexico is like this. Violence is not Mexican, it is universal.”
After many years in the wilderness at the big international festivals, Mexican cinema has undergone something of a renaissance in the last 10 years.
The ensemble cast of Mexican film La jaula de oro, directed by Spaniard Diego Quemada-Díez, was also honored in the Un certain regard section at this year’s Cannes Festival.
The breakout moment came in 2000 when Amores Perros, directed by Iñárritu and scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, won the Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prize. It heralded the arrival of a group of talent, including directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki and Rodrigo Prieto, and actors such as Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Demián Bichir, which has returned the prestige that had deserted Mexican cinema for almost half a century.
]The majority of the prizes won by Mexican films at Cannes have come in the last 10 years. Of the last seven awards for Best Director at the festival, three have gone to Mexicans. However, no Mexican film has won the Palme d’Or top prize since Emilio Fernández’s María Candelaria in 1946.