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David Zonana. HEROIC: The Institution of Violence

Rafael Aviña

Translator, Emilio Cervantes

Before the 90's, a series of concepts prevailed unbreakable in the film “supervision” department where, at least, three topics were untouchable: the army, the national flag, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Rojo amanecer (1989, dir. Jorge Fons) the soldiers show up as honorable persons while the sadic villains belong to a paramilitary group called “Los Halcones.” Years later, Batalla en el cielo (2005) by Carlos Reygadas went far beyond, as it showed raising ceremonies of the national flag by the army, fanaticism, religious scenes shot in the Basilica of Guadalupe, and, at the same time, explicit sex images. A year later, El violín (2006) by Francisco Vargas, screened at the FICM, opened with one of the most brutal sequences in our cinema: images that provoked panic and outrage as they presented the raw military repression (including rape).

This week, Heroic (2023) premiered in cinemas, the second feature fiction film by David Zonana, released almost at the same time as a film that turns out to be its antithesis: Héroes (2023)  by Ricardo Arnaiz. Both films are set in the Heroic Military College and their cadets are the protagonists, and their themes focus on their respective actions for the benefit of the fatherland.

Heroico (2023, dir. David Zonana)
Heroic (2023, dir. David Zonana)

Zonana questions and condemns the abuse of power by the military while Arnaiz praise the figure of los Niños Héroes: the symbol of honor and sacrifice perpetrated by the official history, thereby updating the patriotism of old-fashioned stories such as: El cementerio de las águilas (1938, dir. Luís Lezama), or Mexicanos al grito de guerra (1943, dir. Álvaro Gálvez y Fuentes, Ismael Rodríguez). Moreover, both of them depict a political context of full and permanent support for the Armed Forces and the National Guard.

In his debut feature film Mano de obra (2019), premiered at the 17th edition of the FICM, Zonana created a ruthless allegory about the “good and wise people”; one of the mottos of the current administration, as they debate the consequences of social hatred, the enormous economic differences in the country, corruption, and ignorance. All of the above are themes that come up in Heroic, a film in which he insists on questioning another one of the main government principles: the faith in the army. Mano de obra had a precise dramatic and social construction within the area of the construction in Mexico as a sort of allegory of the country as a whole: a builder (Luis Alberti, winner at the FICM) takes over a residency after killing its owner and creates a community there with his co-workers and their families, a situation that soon turns bad.

On the other hand, in Heroic, the Military College recreated in the impressive Otomí Ceremonial Center in Temoaya, State of Mexico, is the microcosm of a nation that has established violence as its creed and foundation using fear, repression, degradation and a misunderstood concept of masculinity. A cocktail of testosterone that literally uses the resources of social horror cinema to criticize brutality by creating almost unbearable situations.  

Heroico (2023, dir. David Zonana)
Heroic (2023, dir. David Zonana)

Here, Zonana's discourse tends to be ambiguous and repetitive even to be questionable, as it uses graphic violence to refute the same violence. To this is added a fast-paced editing, while relying at the same time on a realistic and harsh narrative, as well as on oneiric scenes that seem to take place between sleep and vigil; hence the photography by Carolina Acosta tends to be dark and hazy, with the exception of a few scenes such as the shocking and ambivalent final sequence. Is it a violent catharsis of real exoneration or an act that only occurs in the mind of the protagonist?

Nevertheless, Heroic also turns out to be an ill-at-ease film not only to the audience, but also to the Mexican film industry and its concepts of political correctness and official discourses. As he proved in Mano de obra or in his short film Princesa (2015), all three produced by Michel Franco, Zonana is capable of creating terrifying atmospheres and situations (such as the “works” that the soldiers make or their absolute lack of sensibility when enjoying snuff videos of sexual intercourse with minors and/or real murders), even above moments of smothering brutality (the dog's sacrifice or the final rape). At the same time, he knows how to distance himself as a documentary that shows a history of abuse of authority against human dignity and its pathological consequences, same consequences that the new aspiring cadets suffer in an institution that boasts of the “abnegation and honor” and feels proud of defending the rights and integrity of Mexicans.

In this line, Heroic is undoubtedly reminiscent of the adept first novel of Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero (1963), including its previous titles before being published: La morada del héroe and Los impostores. Luis Núñez (Santiago Sandoval, with no acting experience and deserter from a military school) and his other comrades, most of whom are from native groups, not only have to bear traumatic family experiences (an ill mother who forces him not to desert, a military father who abandoned his son and thought him how to use weapons, a young man forced to keep going due to the birth of his son, and more), but they also face a severe military discipline in an institution of absolute alienation that is determined to discipline them and “to strengthen and harden” their spirit, and finally ends up erasing all traces of humanity by humiliating them and physically and psychologically assaulting them. All this, in an environment of violence, aggressiveness, “manhood" and machismo, whose border with a hidden homosexuality is almost nonexistent, as it happens with Núñez's superior, Sergeant Sierra (the extraordinary Fernando Cuautle): perfect example of the worst of this military system that turns individuals into insensitive barbarians.