CANNES, France - The Cannes Film Festival has had its first shock to the system, in the shape of Mexican director Amat Escalante's unsparingly violent drug war drama "Heli."
The story of the devastation wreaked by narco-violence on an ordinary Mexican family, the movie paints such a bleak picture that one journalist told its director Thursday that she had canceled a planned trip to the country after seeing it.
Escalante said that wasn't the reaction he was hoping for.
"It's not an anti-tourism movie for Mexico at all," he told reporters in Cannes, where "Heli" is one of 20 films competing for the top prize, the Palme d'Or. "It's a drama that is quite extreme because I think it's even worse, the reality in Mexico - but not the everyday reality.
"It's a great country, a beautiful country that has this virus that invades certain parts, and many people are suffering," said 34-year-old Escalante, both the youngest director and the only Latin American in the main Cannes competition.
"It would be very socially irresponsible not to talk about those bad things that are happening in our country," added Gabriel Reyes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Escalante.
"I think if we never talk about the bad things then problems might never be solved."
Filmed in the bleak and beautiful landscape around the central Mexican city of Guanajuato, the film focuses on Heli (Armando Espitia), a young man who works in a car plant and lives with his wife, baby, father and 12-year-old sister, Estella (Andrea Vergara).
When Estella falls for a police cadet, the family is sucked into the world of the country's drug wars.
With shocking suddenness, violence busts over them, then leaves the damaged survivors to pick up the pieces as best they can.
Two scenes drew gasps from Cannes audiences. One involves nastiness to a puppy, the other the brutal torture of a teenager, conducted partly by children and including what one critic described delicately as "genital immolation."
It was all too much for a few audience members, who walked out. The Hollywood Reporter called the film "an austere glumfest of stomach-churning sadism and lowlife misery porn," while Variety described it as "accomplished but singularly unpleasant."
Others, though, drew comparisons to "City of God" and "Amores Perros" - artful and powerful depictions of violence in Latin America.
"Heli" follows last year's Mexican Cannes contender "Post Tenebras Lux" by Carlos Reygadas, a more surreal but thematically similar response to the drug trade violence that has caused at least 70,000 killings since 2006.
Escalante, who has worked as an assistant director for Reygadas, defended the film's depiction of violence. He shoots it in a manner that's the antithesis of Hollywood - through unblinking scenes that create a sense of detachment but also offer no escape from the horror on show.
"If I'm going to show violence, I'm going to give it the weight it should have," the director said.
"In a moral way, I think the responsibility is to show violence how it should be - sad and unpleasant and very dirty and a nightmare.
"I couldn't show it half way," he added. "Hitchcock said, if you don't show it, it's more powerful. I've always remembered that - but I've tried to do the opposite."