An eye-opening examination of Mexico's blood-soaked drug war and its unsettling pop-culture side effects, "Narco Cultura" is as overwhelming as it is absorbing.

An eye-opening examination of Mexico’s blood-soaked drug war and its unsettling pop-culture side effects, “Narco Cultura” is as overwhelming as it is absorbing. War photographer-turned-director Shaul Schwarz focuses on two very different individuals — crime-scene investigator Richi Soto in Juarez, Mexico, and musician Edgar Quintero in Los Angeles — to illuminate the reality and the fantasy of drug cartels’ impact on both sides of the border. If audiences reject the film’s topic as too unsavory or depressing to contend with, they’ll simply be proving one of the filmmaker’s key points: Despite the staggering statistics, not enough people are paying attention.

It’s no secret that the body count is obscene: more than 60,000 lives lost via drug-related violence between late 2006 and late 2012 in Mexico. That’s the reality of 34-year-old Soto’s daily life as he’s called to investigate crime scene after crime scene, only to see much of the evidence he collects filed away into a black hole of cold cases due to corruption, indifference or understandable exhaustion. He’s witnessed his beloved hometown of Juarez ascend to the top of the list of world’s deadliest cities, and feels both frustrated and frightened by law enforcement’s inability to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, throughout Mexico and many areas of the U.S., a generation of young people has grown up idolizing drug lords and traffickers as heroic outlaws who live large even if many die young. That’s where 27-year-old Quintero, an aspiring artist in the world of Narcocorrido music, comes in. Narcocorrido ballads celebrate the most violent criminal acts through song, and have proven increasingly popular with young people, even though the Mexican government has outlawed them on TV and radio. Quintero writes and records his music in the U.S., but longs to visit Mexico to get a more authentic feel for the culture he adores.

The juxtaposition of the two men and the countries they represent is one of Schwarz’s many subtly conveyed messages: Soto horrified and powerless to contend with the violence consuming Mexico, and Quintero removed from the danger but seduced by its drama and glamour. Through verite chronicles of both men’s lives, “Narco” delivers rich insight into multiple facets of the drug war. Graphic images of dismembered bodies and crime scenes mix with footage of crowded clubs partying to performances by Quintero’s band, Buknas de Culiacan, and Narcocorrido icon El Komander. Scenes of Quintero and his friends casually smoking pot sit uncomfortably next to stories of Soto’s colleagues resigning after death threats or being killed on their way to or from work.

While art celebrating or chronicling violence is nothing new, and many Narcocorridos have lyrics not dissimilar to hardcore gangsta rap, “Narco” contends that breaking a cycle of violence is all the more difficult when it’s simultaneously ingrained in pop culture. As Quintero reasons at one point: “If there wasn’t so much violence in Mexico, we wouldn’t have such badass corridos.” Indeed.

Narco Cultura

Documentary

Production

A Parts & Labor presentation in association with Ocean Size Pictures and K5 Intl. (International sales: K5 Intl., Munich/London.) Produced by Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Todd Hagopian. Executive producers, Fred Warren, Robin Warren. Directed by Shaul Schwarz.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Schwarz; editors, Bryan Chang, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg; music, Jeremy Turner; sound (Tandem), Juan Bertran; re-recording mixer, Eric Offin; associate producer, Lauren Haber, Bertran. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2013. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Richi Soto, Edgar Quintero, Sandra Rodriguez. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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