Following police through Mexico's Ciudad Juárez — reputedly the world's homicide capital — the Israeli filmmaker Shaul Schwarz finds mutilated corpses and gutters running with blood. But the resulting documentary, Narco Cultura, is not nearly so vivid as its most gruesome footage.
One reason for this is Schwarz's attempt at ironic juxtaposition: His principal characters are Richi Soto, a Juarez crime-scene investigator; and Edgar Quintero, an LA singer-songwriter. The latter performs narcocorridos, or ballads that extol drug lords and their murderous thugs as heroic outlaws. The idea may be shocking, but the songs are pretty dull.
As stage props, Quintero and other narcocorrido singers employ bazookas and machine guns — but their music is traditional norteño, a blend of Mexican folk and Germanic polka performed with guitar, accordion and the occasional tuba. It sounds about as ominous as something from a Lawrence Welk Show rerun, even if the lyrics do celebrate sociopaths.
"I think we can be the next hip-hop," boasts a narcocorrido impresario, who's surely kidding himself.
Schwarz talks briefly with journalist Sandra Rodriguez and includes clips from Anderson Cooper's 60 Minutes coverage of Mexico's killing fields. A few statistics encapsulate the horror: In just six years, Juárez's annual murders rose more than tenfold, from 320 in 2006 to 3,622 in 2012.
To flesh out these grim numbers, the director relies heavily on Soto and Quintero. Neither of them proves especially thoughtful.
The cop can't really explain why he stays at his job as his colleagues are picked off by the drug cartel that's invaded Juárez. (Like many lawmen in Mexico, he routinely wears masks in public, so he won't be identified and targeted.)
Even in a conversation with his mother, who wants him to relocate to the safety of nearby El Paso, Soto can't rationalize the risks he's taking.
The singer shows even less self-awareness. From the relative safety of Los Angeles, he fantasizes about traveling to the cartel's hometown, where he'd meet some of the killers he glorifies. The father of two young children, Quintero eventually makes his pilgrimage, over his wife's perfectly sensible objections.
The movie shows narcocorrido concerts that attract fervent singalong crowds, and not just in cities along the border. (Seattle and Atlanta are also on the circuit.) It also introduces promoters and producers who brag about such successes as getting their product into Wal-Mart, whose executives reportedly resisted carrying narcocorrido CDs — until they discovered just how well they'd move.
Mostly, however, the narrative circles back to Soto and Quintero, even though the recurring visits never further illuminate their characters or circumstances. Set to Jeremy Turner's spare and mournful score, Narco Cultura is ultimately more pensive than lurid.
A veteran war photographer, the director shot the movie himself, and he doesn't flinch from the carnage. He depicts singed and dismembered bodies and vehicles laced with bullet holes, often emphasizing the crispness of the highlighted subject with an exceedingly narrow focal plane.
The two most powerful images, however, are landscapes. In the movie's opening scene, a camera positioned on the border shows a verdant USA and a desiccated Mexico. Later, Schwarz turns his camera to plots full of baroque structures, each one testifying to narco riches. They're not McMansions, though — they're mausoleums.
As a picture of a culture besotted with gold and death, that vignette is more chilling than a hundred bloody cadavers.