The heavy metal band Brujeria performed while claiming to be Mexican drug lords. They were joking. The musicians profiled in Shaul Schwarz's fascinating documentary Narco Cultura aren't. They get paid by Mexican drug dealers to write songs singing their praises, and a huge audience embraces them as enthusiastically as fans pumping their fists to Rick Ross. To journalist Sandra Rodriguez, one of Schwarz's interview subjects, they're a sign of cultural despair.
At least as far back as Scarface — and that's the 1932 Howard Hawks version, not Brian De Palma's — the connection between pop-culture thug worship and real-life criminals has been a subject of fierce debate. That argument revives with a vengeance in Narco Cultura, which juxtaposes the sky-high murder rate of Juarez, Mexico, with the immense popularity (mostly among North American Latinos, it suggests) of "narco corridos," a Spanish-language rough equivalent to gangsta rap with accordions rather than samplers and turntables.
Narco Cultura parallels two very different subjects filing dispatches from the war on drugs. The first is Richi Soto, a Juarez crime scene investigator. Since Mexico's drug war began in 2006, its murder rate has skyrocketed. Soto fears for his life but deliberately cuts off his emotions, while dreaming of a better future (and perhaps emigrating to the U.S.).
The other subject, Edgar Quintero, is a Mexican-American singer living in L.A. Since getting out of jail, he's paradoxically turned his life around by singing narco corridos, becoming famous through lyrics like, "We're bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill." But he feels disconnected from the world he sings about. Where a Music Row hit-miller might spend a few nights knocking back PBRs at Santa's Pub for inspiration, he travels to Mexico to experience cartel life firsthand.
Schwarz embraces shock value. His film goes further than any news channel I've seen, even Al Jazeera, in exposing bloody and bullet-ridden corpses — the gruesome flip side of the thug-life balladry. When that's not enough, he uses editing to hammer home the drug war's ironies. At one point, a U.S. border guard talks optimistically about stopping the flow of drugs from Mexico. Cut to L.A., where a woman fires up a blunt and passes it around.
But Schwarz has a background in photography and served as his own cinematographer, and while it may sound ghoulish to point out, Narco Cultura benefits from being handsomely shot. In some respects, its artful photography is a way of honoring the dead, much like the elaborate cemetery plots Quintero visits near the film's end.
Even so, there's a trace of Tipper Gore's finger-wagging sensibility that stunts the movie's cultural exploration. Schwarz clearly thinks the narco corridos are irresponsible, but he never delves into whether fans take them as literally as he does. There's no reason that the form couldn't aspire to the heights of The Godfather, The Sopranos or the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die — pop-culture milestones all the more powerful for working the lines dividing outlaw myth-making from underworld insight.
Yet Narco Cultura suggests that while the genre may be making matters worse, it's a response to a grim cultural and political impasse that makes it logical to see criminals as heroes. The film is admittedly short on background — it never mentions why the drug war escalated specifically in 2006 — and offers no solutions whatsoever: In this regard, it's almost as nihilistic as Quintero's music. But I've never seen a more gut-wrenching indictment of the costs of criminalizing drugs.