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If Netflix’s Narcos depicts the failures of the War on Drugs and the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border through a prism heavily influenced by the films of Martin Scorsese, the streamer’s six-part drama Somos tackles a parallel real-life tragedy through what feels like a John Sayles-inflected lens.
This new release is slower, less sensationalistic and less thrilling than Narcos often is, but its approach to the 2011 Los Zetas Massacre in Allende, 34 miles south of the Pierdas Negras border station, has ample nuance. It’s much more a tapestry of a diverse community on the brink of something horrible than a voyeuristic depiction of an atrocity, which gives it depth even when some parts of its vast ensemble never quite feel fully conceived or embodied.
Airdate: Wednesday, June 30 (Netflix)
Cast: Jesús Sida, Salvador Montenegro, Jimena Pagaza, Germán Guzmán, Jesús Herrera, Mario Alberto Quiñones, Manuel de Jesús, Óscar Guzmán, Eduardo Humarán, Natalia MartÍnez, Ulises Soto, Jero Medina, Arelí González, Fernando Larrañaga, Armando Silva, Iliana Donatlán, Mercedes Hernández, Everardo Arzate, Josué Guerra
Creator: James Schamus
Somos — the title translates as “We are” — was adapted from Ginger Thompson’s ProPublica report by Oscar-nominated writer-producer James Schamus and Mexican scribes Monika Revilla and Fernanda Melchor. Thompson’s report, if you haven’t read it, is an astonishing oral history chronicling the events of March 2011, when a small army tied to the powerful Zetas cartel tore through Allende destroying homes and businesses, abducting and killing citizens in still-undetermined numbers that may be in the hundreds. The story places the blame for the massacre directly at the feet of a bungled DEA operation out of Texas, though other reports have pointed to a web of causality, the horrifyingly inevitable consequence of cartel power-grabs, local corruption and law enforcement gaffes.
Thompson’s report is full of the voices and stories of the real people involved, but for what one assumes are legal reasons, Schamus and his team have built an ensemble basically from the ground up, with some very obviously fictionalized versions of the actual key figures and other characters inspired by details within Thompson’s story, if not literal people. As if to restore some of the authenticity lost in that fictionalizing, roughly half of the cast of Somos is made up of non-professional actors, a casting strategy that really does give scenes some unforced grounding, though telling the professionals from the amateurs is very, very easy.
The series begins with cartel goons rounding up weapons at a prison and beginning what would become the massacre, before flashing back for nearly five hours of prelude, stretched across at least a half-dozen variably effective storylines, none given clear priority.
There’s the Linares family, led by patriarch Isidro (Fernando Larrañaga), powerful local ranchers whose lives are upended by the encroachment of the cartel and the return of prodigal son Benjamin (Jero Medina), who carries a stiff debt to the wrong people. There’s sweetly innocent Paquito (Jesús Sida), living with wife Aracely (Natalia Martinez), their baby and Aracely’s mother Doña Chayo (Mercedes Hernandez), whose position as proprietor of a local food cart gives her eyes all over town. There are high-school football teammates and buddies Nancy (Jimena Pagaza), Tom (Mario Alberto Quiñones) and Armando (Jesús Herrera), whose lives are complicated when two of them start dating and with the arrival of Samuel (Ulises Soto), a new kid whose powerful father (Antonio López Torres) has connections to some unsavory elements. There are sisters Irene (Iliana Donatlán) and Erika (Arelí González), sketchy shipping mogul Hector (Armando Silva), plus the residents of a local brothel with ties to trafficking operations.
Meanwhile, in the United States we meet DEA agents Carlos (Martin Peralta) and Stephanie (Kerry Ardra), who are perplexed to discover that two crucial members of the Zetas operation — named Z-40 and Z-42 — have permanent residences outside of this no-account town. They then learn that a Dallas-area drug middle-man (Josué Guerra’s Oscar) might have more clout than they previously realized.
Somos can be divided into storylines that will trigger the eventual massacre and storylines that the eventual massacre will truncate — storylines that exist for reasons of plot and storylines that exist for reasons of characterization. The storylines that exist for reasons of characterization tend to be slice-of-life glimpses in that Sayles tradition; they’re understated, heartfelt and, if we’re being completely honest, can come across as checking off boxes representing certain perspectives that need to be acknowledged. These were my favorite parts of the series, and I appreciated that Schamus and his fellow writers were willing to simply sit back and watch a teenage love triangle unfold or capture the tense day-to-day details of a young man-child trying to find his purpose while living with his seemingly disapproving mother-in-law and more mature wife. The treatment of Allende as a town of dreamers, some ambitious and some more intimate, about to get utterly steamrolled by malevolent forces delivers one heartbreaking beat after another and these vignettes contained many of my favorite performances in the series, including those from Hernandez, Sida and Pagaza.
Is it a bit finger-on-the-scale manipulative given that we know what’s coming for much of the town? Sure, but directors Alvaro Curiel and Mariana Chenillo, plus cinematographer Ignacio Prieto, commit to these stories and unfamiliar faces, and to the treatment of Allende as a place that deserved protection — or, more damningly, a place that was failed by those entrusted with protecting it.
The series is less successful when its focus is on plot. The stuff in the Stateside DEA office is thoroughly mechanical. Agents Carlos and Stephanie have no dimension and their scenes fail to yield any suspense or insight into a flawed process. It’s a bad position for the writers to be in: You sense the nobility in not wanting to have this Mexican tragedy railroaded by an American storyline with recognizable English-speaking actors, butting up against a source-material article headlined “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico.”
You want there to be causality and you want to point the blame at poorly managed American intelligence resources without giving the audience anything to care about in the slightest? Mission accomplished, I guess. Unfortunately, the cartel-adjacent parts of the Mexican story aren’t particularly good either. Torres’ Cesar is too simplistically menacing and Medina’s Benjamin is too simplistically pathetic, and when part of the series goes to a dingy private prison, it’s something out of a TV show and not out of reality, no matter how real such prisons actually are. There’s so much that’s just perfunctory about the plot-driven part of the show, cable/streaming bog-standard depictions of the tense build-up to rape, torture and adversity.
Fortunately, at no point does Somos ever become too weighted toward the clumsily plotted side. The how and why of what happened in Allende are important, but less so than the sprawling experience of the people the very bad thing happened to. There’s bloody violence here, but this is really a story about an older woman pushing a snack cart on unpaved streets, a ranch foreman trying to come to terms with his gay son, a young woman looking for love and respect as a football kicker.
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