Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) is aged just 18, poor, indigenous, and living with his mother. She desperately needs expensive medication, and so Luis joins the Heroic Military College in the hope to raise the emergency cash. This is a rigorous institution steeped in corruption, violence, and degradation of all sorts. Young men are trained to become desensitised soldiers, machines prepare to obey without questioning and to shoot without hesitation. They are told that they are doing this in the name of their beloved nation, which they must defend at all costs. That’s presumably from an outside invader or a conflict abroad (note: Mexico hasn’t been involved in a war for many decades). In fact, it looks like the young men are being trained to fight an invisible enemy. They are being trained to battle against their own sense of humanity.
The entry interview is very unambiguous. Luis is asked whether he is attracted to the same sex, whether anyone in his family has ever had mental health issues, whether he has ever experienced sexual abuse, and if he knows how to handle a gun. The questions are abrupt and monosylabical answers are demanded. One step in the wrong direction, and he could be turned down. Once inside, Luis meets his superiors. They exert their power on the “colts” (novices) through unrelenting intimidation technique. One of the officers is aptly named “Sergeant Torturer”. Young man are stripped of their dignity and individuality. Literally stripped. Unorthodox initiation rituals include abundant nudity, public beating and insulting. “Moron”, “faggot”, “trash” become trivial vocatives, both as an oppressive device and friendly banter. Young soldiers are forced to kneel on the slippery shower floor with their heads down until they collapse. Outside activities are sometimes carried out naked. Nudity here isn’t empowering, but instead one of the many degradation weapons. The writing is on the wall: either learn to emulate your tormentor or leave, you bloody sissy!
The sadism and the perversity extends to sexuality. The young soldiers repeatedly watch violent pornography on their mobile devices and laugh at the terrified women screaming out loud (presumably being raped). Luis receives very peculiar sexual advice, after seeing a female visitor from his village: “choke her, if she screams it means she likes it, then fuck her in the arse”. Women are perceived as objects intended merely for male gratification. Many of the commonly used slurs consist of feminising soldiers: “bitch”, “slut”, etc. In this repulsive world of extreme toxic masculinity, there is nothing more undesirable than the weakness associated with women. This is grossly reductive sexism. Soldiers are asked to swear allegiance to Mexico by stating their name followed by “died for the fatherland”. The fact that the nation itself is masculinised (“patria” in Spanish, which means “fatherland” in English) also helps to emphasise all male qualities are to be celebrated, while anything female is to be rejected and violated.
Luis has a good heart and struggles to fit in, despite subjecting himself to some shocking rituals, and obeying the rules without questioning. He does not wish to perpetuate the perverse behaviour being forced upon him. His emotional refusal becomes clear when he visits his family and his younger brother expresses his desire to join the military. Luis’s response is one of the most significant scenes in the film.
Thirty-four-year-old director David Donana and cinematographer Carolina Costa opt to keep a Brechtian distance from the characters. The camera is mostly static, the majority of shots are either wide or extreme wide, and there is little artificial lighting. This creates a sense of alienation, partly sparing viewers from the graphic details of the violence. We are mere outside observers, from a very safe distance. As a result, violence is not fetishised, and Heroic is not a sadistic, voyeuristic endeavour. This is unlike other Mexican films, such as Michel Franco’s celebrated New Order (2020), which uses graphic violence and blood as a narrative device. A powerful ending proposes a new, shocking solution.
Heroic is in Competition at REC, Tarragona International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in the Panorama section of the Berlinale. Donana is a name to look out for.