MEXICO CITY — A Mexican returns from the United States to find his home town corrupted by drug traffickers in a polemical movie drawing laughs in Mexico despite its brutal depiction of drug violence.
Beheadings, mutilations and corrupt offici als, from local police right up to federal investigators, feature in El Infierno, or "Hell," released two weeks before massive celebrations marking the bicentenary of Mexico's independence and centenary of its revolution.
The black-humored satire also criticizes President Felipe Calderon's military crackdown on drug gangs -- which has been accompanied by a surge in violence leaving more than 28,000 dead since 2006 -- and suggests that the country will have little to celebrate on September 16.
"In some way the big question is: 'Where will everything we're seeing lead us?'" Luis Estrada, the film's director, told AFP.
Estrada is renowned for his controversial movie "La Ley de Herodes," or "Herod's Law," which took a humorous swipe at political corruption under the party which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years to 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
"I'm surprised that 10 years later I realize we're much worse off," Estrada said.
"Hell" suggests that government pressure to produce results against the country's violent gangs is only producing more corruption and brutality.
The moustachioed protagonist, Benjamin Garcia, alias "The Benny," is kicked back into Mexico after spending 20 years seeking a better life in the United States.
His home town, called San Miguel Narcangel -- a combination of "archangel" and "narco" -- is desolate on his return, battered by the economic crisis, an eruption of violence and corruption.
He soon learns that many of his friends and relatives have been knocked off by drug traffickers or drawn into brutal score-settling.
At first he is shocked by the violent influence of the drug gangs on the town, and the local women who now work as prostitutes for them.
But, having failed to send back money to his family from the United States, he soon slips into the ultra violent world of the local drug gangs -- and takes a liking for its lifestyle, including payments in bundles of cash.
El Benny exchanges his shabby jeans and baseball cap for colorful shirts, jewelry and cowboy hats, in a parody of the capos lauded in the country's ostentatious drug culture.
But he is also dragged into an endless spiral of revenge killings, in an underworld where priests and top politicians play key roles.
"None of the problems from the past, like social inequality, corruption, impunity, or authoritarianism have been solved, but now a new snake's egg is taking shape -- the phenomenon of violence, organized crime, which I believe affects all society in some way," Estrada said.
The film's message is grim, with blood trickling over Mexico's national emblem -- an eagle with a serpent in its talon on top of a cactus -- and faltering fireworks after more bloodshed during independence day festivities.
But laughter rang out among Mexico City moviegoers as corrupt practices were laid bare and novice drug traffickers fainted and were treated as cowards during mutilations and killings.
"It's strong, but it's done in a way that makes you hear lots of laughs in the theater," said 74-year-old Guadalupe del Rayo as she left a screening.
"We're just surprised that they let it be shown because it's the anniversary of independence and this is a mockery of the country."
The movie received some government aid and even help from a special bicentenary fund, but it was also given an "18" rating, which Estrada said was unfair since it shows less sex and violence than many foreign movies rated for younger people.
With drug-related killings part of daily news reports, some moviegoers saw the film as a necessary critique.
"It's reality here in Mexico. Some are in the middle of it, some of us are outside," said 29-year-old Felipe Bernal. "There's lots of corruption here... the situation lends itself to making people laugh."
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