‘Narco Cultura’: Violent Accordion Music

December 2, 2013 Updated: December 2, 2013

It makes gangster rap sound polite and progressive. Narcocorrido is a virulent cousin of conjunto music, lionizing the drug traffickers and assassins terrorizing Mexico.

Banned in their home country, narcocorridos are largely based in American border cities and do a brisk business through legitimate American retailers. (Indeed, Sam Walton would not be happy to hear what his stores now carry.)

Shaul Schwarz observes the state of underground narcocorrido culture and the violence it celebrates in “Narco Cultura,” which opened Nov. 22 in New York.

Raised in Los Angeles, Edgar Quintero fetishizes narcoterrorism on stage as the front man of up-and-coming narcocorrido band Buknas de Culiacan. Riccardo Soto sees the fruits of narcocorrido culture every night as a crime scene investigator. On the plus side, Soto’s skills are in high demand.

Unfortunately, he and his colleagues must wear balaclavas to protect their identity when responding to a call. For obvious reasons, the dedicated family had tendered his resignation, but his sense of duty compelled him to return six months later.

Almost entirely observational in his approach, Schwarz never asks Soto for a review of Quintero’s latest CD. Nor does he confront Quintero with crime scene photos of the latest innocent bystanders cut down by his idols. Presumably, Schwarz was concerned about preserving his subjects’ trust and access, as well as maintaining a consistent tone. However, this obvious avenue of inquiry forgone casts a long, distracting shadow over the film.

At one point, Schwarz revisits the blinged-out cemeteries previously seen in Natalia Almada’s film “El Velador,” but “Narco Cultura” has considerably more get-up-and-go than its defiantly oblique predecessor. Things definitely happen in Schwarz’s film, but it is dominated by the bloody aftermaths of the cartels’ ruthless business rather than action per se.

The picture that emerges of a Mexico plagued by bloodshed and corruption is not pretty. Frankly, it would have been an important wake-up call, but it may have come too late.

Watching the reckless aggression of the narcos, clearly abetted by crooked government officials, it appears that Mexico is teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. Schwarz never bothers to seek any elusive solutions. Who knows, maybe France can re-install the heir of Emperor Maximilian.

“Narco Cultura” is fully stocked with dramatic images, many of which approach the threshold of outright shocking. Yet, the film is essentially a cinematic shrug, taking it all in, but never delving to deeply into the dysfunctional pop culture it documents.

Far superior to “El Velador,” but not nearly as emotionally engaging as Bernardo Ruiz’s “Reportero,” “Narco Cultura” is still eye-opening stuff, recommended for Lou Dobbs watchers. It is currently showing at the AMC Empire.

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com


Narco Cultura
Director: Shaul Schwarz
Run Time: 1 hour, 43 min
Release Date: Nov. 22
Rating: R

3 stars out of 5