Actually, I believe these guys are the ones who knock…

An insightful documentary that takes a look at a fascinating and terrifying subject matter from an interesting and unexpected direction, Narco Cultura gives us a glimpse at the Mexican Drug War and the death and destruction that is caused as a result.  What gives this one quite a unique touch is that much of the subject matter is given to us through the perspective of how the drug war both affects and is represented by pop culture.

First and foremost, I should mention that first-time filmmaker Shaul Shwarz has a keen eye for visuals.  Often, the documentary genre is victim of not having it’s own filmic identity – yes, the filmmaker’s style should never get in the way of just presenting events as they happen, but the best documentarians know how to put their own visual spin on the piece to break up the talking heads and assure us that we’re watching the latest documentary by that particular person.  These documentarians ensure that we will watch anything that they put out, as opposed to just seeking out those subject matters that appeal to us.  Shwarz certainly knows how to find (and, perhaps even manipulate a bit) imagery to make it visually appealing but, other than a few instances in the first 30 minutes or so, not over-stylized to the point of distraction.

Speaking of the visuals, audiences should know going in that this film is very unflinching.  Murder scenes and autopsies are represented her in very raw and very untouched footage.  Some shots, in fact, linger a bit longer than is necessary.  Some may argue that this shock value is necessary in order to get the point across, but the film is much more successful in that respect in the non-gruesome portions.  Still, whether intentional or not, these images do help drive the point home that is largely represented here – is there a line too far to cross when combining real life violence with entertainment?

While many avenues are covered here – ramifications in the world of politics, film, economics, family life, etc… the two main subjects are Mexican drug enforcement officer Riccardo “Richi” Soto and musician Edgar Quintero.  Soto has been a detective for many years and has devoted his life to stopping the cartels.  He also, unfortunately, bears witness on a pretty regular basis to his friends and colleagues falling victim to the ongoing war.  His recollections are both fascinating and heartbreaking as he seems fully aware that he could be next at absolutely anytime.

Even more interesting is the story of Quintero.  Making his living as a narcocorrida (a singer of drug ballads), he sways between our sympathies and our disgust.  He’s hired by the cartels to write songs containing lyrics that celebrate the exploits and evil deeds, and therefore profits off of the horrors inherent to the drug wars.  But, at the same time, he is a man just trying to provide for his family any way that he can.  Living in Los Angeles, he’s well removed from any of the actual violence, but does a blind eye and inevitability excuse his profiteering?  Shwarz wisely makes sure his film does not take either side, but instead allows Quintero the room to speak for himself, ultimately ending up in his own vilification (no worries – that’s not a spoiler.  Your opinion will be formed early on).


I did not want to spend my review spouting out unbelievable and horrifying facts from the movie – you should watch the film for that.  Narco Cultura is a fascinating look at not only the drug war and culture, but how it affects the entertainment industry (or, it’s own wing of it) and, to a lesser extent here, the normal, everyday person.  Very well made and quite thought-provoking, Narco Cultura is a must watch.

Jason’s Grade: A

Review by Jason Howard, Film Critic