The road looks like it could go on forever, which wouldn’t be so frightening a thought if the road wasn’t so empty. The wind whistles a deep sigh, the sun glares like a taunting spotlight. As for the few wanderers we meet along the way, they’re searching for their own path—going backward means confronting an ongoing conflict constantly at their heels, while journeying forward bears its own uncertainties.
Three recent movies observe some version of this perilous road, creating the core of an emerging canon in Mexican cinema—Issa López’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” Fernando Frías’ “I’m No Longer Here” and Fernanda Valadez’s “Identifying Features.” On their own terms, each is a compelling portrait of Mexican characters attempting to outrun the encroaching wildfire of an increasingly deadly drug war. But taken as a trio—as a bold and quietly furious triumvirate—these films resist the influence of a real-world conflict’s implications by depicting them through a humanitarian lens. Where historic rates of violence have created the perception of a country overwhelmed by evil, these movies focusing on resilience over menace. Where cartels and police corruption have held the country in its grip, they embody an act of artistic rebellion that proves how compassion is just as effective a weapon.
These three films often refrain from showing those pulling the trigger and sparking violence, focusing on victims more than the stereotypical Mexican criminals of U.S. cinema. Violence here is not exploitative, instead it’s often brief and horrific.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid,” Issa López’s urban fable coated in flourishes of light horror, begins with a shellshock of a scene as Mexican children dive to the classroom floor when gunfire erupts outside, some of it piercing the windows and walls. Later, while the young protagonist Estrella (Paola Lara) walks home, she observes a bloody tarp-covered body as kids play limbo with strings of yellow security tape nearby. None of this, we sense, is abnormal for them, and in that realization López urges us to consider how Mexico’s youngest are coming of age during a dark chapter in their country’s history; “Tigers Are Not Afraid” premiered in late 2017, the first of three straight years that saw Mexico set new high-water marks for homicide rates, according to congressional research. For Estrella, violence is so prevalent that stumbling on the dead body barely causes her to flinch.
Violence is an omnipresent threat in Fernando Frías' “I’m No Longer Here” as well—it can explode at any moment, and its characters know it. Much in the same way the orphaned kids of “Tigers Are Not Afraid” initially keep themselves to a makeshift home on a roof, this film's gang of teenage counterculture Terkos tend to hang out high up in the concrete ribs of half-constructed Monterrey skyscrapers, out of sight from the threat of violence below that is constantly biting at the edges of the movie’s colorful tableaus. When the Terkos’ stoic leader Ulises (Daniel Garcia) later stumbles into a climactic scene of violence, it’s numbingly quick. American movies would linger on the bombastic spectacle of gunfire, but here it’s a short spit of bullets that ends as soon as we realize what’s happening. The shooters are like specters floating through the story; “I’m No Longer Here” doesn’t give them any real sense of characterization or depth as it remains focused on Ulises, whose circumstantial presence at the bloody killing will force him to flee for the U.S.
In Valadez’s “Identifying Features,” there’s practically no gunfire or explicit violence of any kind until its haunting closing minutes. Instead, we attune ourselves to the pensive thousand-yard gazes of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) as she searches for her missing son. In that search, Valadez creates the uneasy sensation that Magdalena and the viewer are constantly following the footsteps of where violence has been; the road she takes is often deserted, and it’s here that “Identifying Features” and “Tigers Are Not Afraid” share the characteristic of unfolding in settings so stark and scarred that they feel dystopian in nature. (“I’m No Longer Here” begins in a gentler place, but Monterrey will take on an eerie emptiness of its own by the movie’s end.) Magdalena is an older protagonist than Estrella or Ulises, although her age is less a signal of incapability and more a literalization of Mexican past trying to make sense of its horrific present—of a country trying to reclaim itself from its own worst tendencies.
The mother’s journey for answers is met by bureaucratic obstacles but propelled by the fortitude in Hernández’s eyes and a resistance to accepting the worst fate—that her son was ambushed by a cartel, and either killed or taken. Echoing Estrella and Ulises’ steely determination against chaos, Magdalena’s entrenched endurance borders on the superhuman as she holds fast in the eye of the storm. In keeping the audience’s perspective tightly bound to that of her protagonist, Valadez keeps us engaged not only in the mystery of the story, but in the ripple effects of the drug war on fragmented Mexican families—the uncertainty, the loneliness, the emotional despair.
These films feel like a response to news headlines that often focus on macabre acts of violence, and not the victims of said violence (such news coverage also imbalances the narrative, despite Mexico being outside the top 10 countries with the highest homicide rates). Valadez, Frías, and López strive to do the opposite by putting a human face on their crisis-inspired stories, to the point where their films effectively function as docudrama. Take the orphaned kids of “Tigers Are Not Afraid”—a movie that begins by informing us about the tens of thousands that have disappeared in Mexico during the drug war (and that’s only those that have been reported)—who find shelter in the realm of fantasy while attempting to retain at least a semblance of the childhood that’s been stolen from them. Imperiled children are often a tool of cheap emotional manipulation in the movies, but “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is charged with the urgency of its real-life contexts—that kidnappings shot up in the 2010s, a symptom of what’s become a humanitarian crisis. That context presents a necessary challenge for American audiences at a time when hundreds of Latin American kids remain separated from their families at the southern border.
“I’m No Longer Here,” meanwhile, humanizes its protagonists by making them emblematic of true-to-life Monterrey history; the Terkos are in the lineage of Cholombiano counterculture, known for its love of slowed-down cumbia music and dramatic hairstyles. Frías’ movie might be more fascinating for its sympathetic portrayal of the Terkos than for the drama they’ll come to be enveloped in, and it’s in that dynamic that “I’m No Longer Here” refuses to depict a Mexican community solely defined by violence and drug war politics. When they play their music, they lock themselves into comfortable confines, blocking out the growing chants of Monterrey residents confronting police in the streets. Frías’ movie has a depth worthy of its characters; it rebels against the omnipresence of inhumanity by zooming in on the unspoken loyalty that binds the Terkos, much in the same way the harmless gang itself rebels against the status quo of political corruption by tearing down the banners of untrustworthy bureaucrats.
Despite often addressing its existence, corruption never becomes the dramatic anchor of these stories. In “I’m No Longer Here,” the faces of political candidates adorn those banners brought down by the Terkos and are later heard on the radio. In “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” keen ears will pick up a TV newscast informing viewers about aspiring leaders revealed to have ties to the drug trade. In “Identifying Features,” the coldness of political influence is heard addressing a character with the threat of deportation, though the speaker remains outside the frame. By relegating the broad portrayal of government influence to the environment, the films refrain from overshadowing their protagonists; at the same time, these disconnected depictions of national politics juxtapose neatly with the multidimensionality of the movies’ lead characters.
There may be no more striking parallel in these movies, however, than their vivid portrayals of loyalty to family and empathy for strangers, the kind of empathy that those most directly involved in the drug war would never be able to recognize in themselves. Magdalena’s loyalty to her son is baked into every gripping frame of “Identifying Features,” and into every lonely step she takes along the empty desert roads that connect Mexican ghost towns. Ulises’ loyalty to the Terkos is so strongly manifested that we’re pierced by the melancholy of his cultural displacement after he’s fled to New York City, where strangers look at his hair and extra-baggy clothes with dehumanizing fascination. And Estrella’s loyalty to her newfound companions in “Tigers Are Not Afraid” reflects a compassion to counter the casual cruelties of the group’s hardened young leader. For her, empathy is a greater weapon than moral corruption—it’s capable of much more than the violent tendencies of the cartel members on the kid’s tails.
Empathy is also the greatest weapon for these filmmakers. In using film to reshape the conversation about their home country, they imbue thrilling drama with an emotional context, and reckon with changing times while showing that Mexico—and the perception of Mexico—needn’t be forever defined by the forces spurring that change. There’s a catharsis in that sentiment, and also an inevitable pain as one of the country’s deadliest half-decades ever comes to a close. What the future looks like for Mexico, and how the world looks at the country as a result, will be influenced by how filmmakers tell the stories of everyday Mexicans advancing on that unending road.