Now intermittently escalating for over a decade, amassing hundreds of thousands of casualties and destroying countless lives, Mexico’s drug war still remains an inscrutable issue for many Americans—at best something to be sympathetically appalled by, at worst the impetus for nativist uproar about installing pointless defensive barriers. Yet as Matthew Heineman’s fascinating, at times dubious 2015 documentary Cartel Land demonstrated, much of the political angst on both sides of the border is connected, part of a contemporary continuum of governmental failure and institutional collapse. Films that recognize such parity are by now less than novel, but few have approached the subject with such an absence of glamour, and an overt sense of fatigue, as Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad, a heartfelt essay film that digs into several instances of trauma occasioned by this horrible conflict.
There are no swaggering narcos here, no mask-clad police heroes or stalwart, morally compromised autodefensas. Instead, the focus is insistently domestic and entirely female, with two parallel stories featuring innocent women caught up in the sprawling web of violence and corruption. One is told by Miriam, a Cancun customs officer who, along with several colleagues, was caught up in a sting operation that sought patsies on whom to pin human-trafficking charges. The other concerns an actual victim of such trafficking, a veteran circus performer named Adela whose daughter was kidnapped by the cartels, then either murdered or sold off into anonymous sexual slavery. In both cases, crooked government officials are involved; the very people who’ve been tasked with keeping citizens safe are implicated in fostering a culture where such comfort has become impossible.
The cumulative toll of suffering and exhaustion are palpable forces in both stories, which dovetail into a composite portrait of the way in which the most vulnerable are invariably made to bear the highest cost. In this sense, Tempestad actually contains three central characters, with the director’s own presence slotted in behind that of the two women profiled, never visible but always in attendance. In the itinerant half of the film’s split structure, Huezo documents a days-long bus ride, tracing Miriam’s trip back home after her sudden release from a cartel-run prison in the far north of the country. The woman’s morose testimony plays out over this free-associative footage, which highlights faces, landscapes, and locations, acting as a swift survey of the nation’s stunning diversity and often-crushing poverty.
The entire trip is beset by rain and storms, a fact which adds further dramatic shading to Miriam’s agonizing chronicle. The weather is equally tempestuous in the film’s other half, in which the spectacle of a circus dress rehearsal performance, conducted within an empty big-top tent, hauntingly expresses the often-absurd spectacle of public tragedy. In both sections, the futility of finding redress for or release from these crimes finds a stylistic counterpart in the loose, impressionistic shooting style, which stresses barrenness, turbulence, and corrosion without lapsing into heavy-handed symbology. Instead, Huezo uses these qualities to cultivate a persistent air of unease, paralleling the anxious experience of people who find themselves in permanent limbo and at the mercy of forces utterly beyond their control.
In doing so, Tempestad makes no overt political statements but nonetheless functions as a full-throated denouncement of a toxic culture of cruelty and corruption while retaining a compassionate affection for all of its immediate subjects. No mention is made of the U.S., but for viewers living north of the border, it’s easy to connect the complete breakdown of society witnessed here to the slower rot occurring in our own national system. In both cases, systems designed to safeguard the needy and vulnerable have instead been twisted toward serving the desires of a rapaciously greedy minority. By focusing on those who’ve suffered the most, and by offering no cathartic respite or false glimmers of hope, Huezo creates an aching humanistic document whose message is now all too applicable to so many places around the world.