Box-Office Smash 'The Perfect Dictatorship' Holds a Mirror to Mexican Frustrations
The film's director claims the political satire about corruption was 'vetoed' by broadcaster Televisa
Luis Estrada's political satire The Perfect Dictatorship was the top-grossing Mexican film this year, yet many will remember it as an uncomfortable reminder of all that's gone terribly wrong in the country.
The controversial movie is a biting look at political corruption, drug-related violence and the mainstream media's collusion with the government — the very issues that now have thousands of people marching in Mexico's streets every week.
The title refers to a famous quote from Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, who once called Mexico's ruling party, known as the PRI, a "camouflaged dictatorship," thereby making it "the perfect dictatorship."
The Perfect Dictatorship connected big time with moviegoers, grossing about $14 million after nine weeks in theaters. It did so at a time when Mexico is seeing large-scale unrest spurred by a recent incident in which 43 students in the southern Mexico town of Iguala were kidnapped by police, handed over to a drug gang and most likely massacred. Former Iguala mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who allegedly ordered the police action, has been charged with multiple counts of homicide.
All across Mexico, people have grown fed up with a drug war that has left an estimated 80,000 people dead since 2006. That's more casualties than the Vietnam War, according to the National Archives website.
Even Mexico's most renowned filmmakers are demanding justice for the missing students. At a MoMA film benefit in November, Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) read a statement co-signed by Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman) saying they wanted answers from the government.
"We believe that these crimes are systemic and indicate a much greater evil: the blurred lines between organized crime and the high-ranking officials in the Mexican government," the filmmakers said.
The blurred lines were on full display in Estrada's previous film, Hell, which unfolds in a small Mexican town overrun by a drug gang (the fictitious town representing a microcosm of the whole country).
The Perfect Dictatorship examines drug violence as well, but it goes a step further in its depiction of corrupt government officials in collusion with a powerful TV network, a fictional portrayal of Mexican media giant Televisa.
The broadcaster, dubbed Television Mexicana, manipulates news stories in exchange for political favors, and it plays a crucial role in putting the president in office. In real life, Televisa has come under attack for filming a staged hostage rescue and for biased news coverage that allegedly altered the outcome of a presidential election.
The Perfect Dictatorship's opening disclaimer makes things abundantly clear: "In this story all the names are fictitious, the events suspiciously real. Any similarity with reality is not mere coincidence."
Estrada said that under a first-look deal, Televisa-owned distributor Videocine had agreed to release The Perfect Dictatorship in Mexico and the U.S., but it backed out after seeing the final cut. Estrada just shrugs his shoulders and smirks when asked why Televisa had initially committed to a film so blatantly critical of the network, and Televisa remains mum on the matter.
Even stranger, Estrada claims that Televisa, along with rival broadcaster TV Azteca, later "vetoed" the film prior to the release.
"The box-office results are all the more impressive because the film was never mentioned on TV, not even on network news and entertainment programs, not once." Estrada said.
What's more, according to the Mexican daily Reforma, Televisa told telenovela and film actor Alfonso Herrera that if he appeared in the movie, the network would not renew his "exclusivity" contract, meaning his career as a Televisa actor would be over.
So, the rising star said adios to Televisa.
"It took two seconds to make the decision," said Herrera, who plays an unethical news producer in The Perfect Dictatorship.
Televisa declined to comment.
Had the film had the advertising might of Televisa behind it, it may have been even more successful, especially if it had benefited from a U.S. release under the Televisa-Lionsgate distribution venture Pantelion.
In the end, producer-director Estrada went with indie distributor Alfhaville Cinema for the Mexico theatrical release and much to his surprise, The Perfect Dictatorship became a hit and the third highest-grossing Mexican film of all time.
Adding salt to the wound, the picture outperformed two of Televisa's widest releases of the year: the biopic Cantinflas and rom-com Get Married if You Can. Perhaps due to Televisa's influence, Mexico picked Cantinflas over The Perfect Dictatorship as its official submission for the 2015 foreign-language Oscar. But The Perfect Dictatorship will represent Mexico at Spain's Goya Awards in February, where it is the country's entry for best foreign film.
Estrada says the box-office results far exceeded his expectations, but that he made the film primarily to voice the concerns of the people of Mexico.
"All my films try to show the everyday reality of what's happening in Mexico … the scandals, the violence," he said. "And the reality is that the country hasn't changed."