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the Queen of the South : superstition, fatalism and the poetry of death

Lawrence Russell | filmcourt.ca

Created by M.A. Fortin Joshua John Miller Based on La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte | Written by Scott Rosenbaum M.A. Fortin Joshua John Miller Arturo Pérez-Reverte | Starring Alice Braga Veronica Falcon Justina Machado Peter Gadiot Hemky Madera Gerardo Taracena Joaquim de Almeida Jon-Michael Ecker Nick Sagar | Theme music composer Giorgio Moroder Raney Shockne | Directed by David Boyd Eduardo Sánchez David Rodriguez Matthew Penn Scott Peters Nick Copus et al.

the Queen of the South is available on Netflix (Seasons 1 & 2)

Trailer »»»

interview with Alice Braga »»»

§ How do you make bad people appear to be good people? By seeing things from their point-of-view... celebrate their achievements by showing them to be hard working folk with the coolest taste money can buy... misunderstood folk surrounded by greed, treachery, avarice and murder... and, as this is the situation, let the guns drive the action.

'In Sinaloa, dying violently was dying a natural death' (Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Queen of the South)

The Queen of the South is a narco ballad cut to the beat -- brutal, bestial, bloody and backward -- with flashy sentimentality, cheap poetics, and a political agenda that ensures the suckholes die first. The series has gone two seasons so far, and shows the fantastic rise of Teresa Mendoza (Alice Braga), a street chick who starts out as a moneychanger in Culiacan, Mexico, and eventually becomes the boss of the Sinaloan narco cartel.

The story is based upon the first 75 pages or so of the Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte's 2004 novel La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South), and these 75 pages are the best stuff, show how Teresa becomes a fugitive from the narcos when her boyfriend, a chicano drug pilot called Güero, is (apparently) killed by a rival gang who are at war with the boss, Don Epifanio Vargas. Reverte is a good writer -- loose, fast, ironic and accurate -- although for some reason he chose to have Teresa flee to the Costa de Sol and start drug smuggling out of Morocco rather than have her seek refuge in the US (as happens in the series). Her rape by Gato -- a pivotal plot point in the early part of Season 1 -- doesn't happen until late in the novel when the Sinaloan hitmen fly to Spain to kill Teresa in a futile better-late-than-never manoeuver by Don Epifanio, now trying to be reborn as a senator in the Sinaloa State government. In the series, of course, Epifanio becomes Governor, and gets involved in a "until-death-do-us-part" struggle with his estranged wife Camila -- the 'Queen of the South' -- for the control of the Sinaloan cartel.

Queen of the South:: Teresa

Queen of the South: Epifanio

And Teresa becomes Camila's understudy. First a mule, then a capo, then a rival.

Sometimes script writers use a journalist's feature story to create a drama, and in a way this is what happens in the series. Reverte writes like a journalist -- interviews, researched detail, himself as part of the action -- so it's this fictionalized gonzo material that provides the carne con papas for the series. In the novel, Epifanio's wife Camila is seen in passing, but in the series, she's a major character, if not the major character. This reinvention of Reverte's original story is for the better, as the feminization not only fits the times but also adds more credibility to Teresa's character.

'Teresa had been raped other times: at 15 by several of the boys in Las Siete Gotas, and then by the man who'd put her to work on Calle Juarez.' (Reverte)

To the innocent, Teresa's character will appear fantastic, just a notch below 'Colombiana' or Joan of Arc. If you know Reverte's other novels, you might be suspicious as he isn't great with female characters, is very much a male adventure writer, so Teresa Mendoza might appear to be a man dressed as a woman, a macho stand-in for a feminist market, an Isabel Peron who carries a dead body no matter where her exile might be. Yet it must be said that the script writers for this series have done a great job in creating a credible character in an incredible world. Alice Braga's acting, of course, has a lot to do with it -- understated, gritty, romantic rather than sexual, Levi rather than Gucci -- with her total identification with the type, the body language in lieu of jive talk, speaking with the eyes, seeing with the nose, hearing as a dog before the earthquake arrives. In this way, as a quintessential survivor, Teresa ascends to her throne long before she finds it.

In the world of the narcomafia, she's almost too good to be true. She's no feminist action doll like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There's nothing glamorous about her -- she's just a barrio bird dressed up as a 9 (when she has to be), otherwise a working girl in blue jeans with no makeup and an anxious expression. If she's beautiful, it's because of her long hair and her maternal nature. She listens. She gives... and she runs. When the phone call comes telling her to run because Güero (slang for gringo) is dead, Güero has left her equipped with some essentials for running: a Colt 45 Double Eagle automatic, 20k US, 300 grams of blow, his flying logbook... and a taste for Pacifico beer, the narco favorite when hangin' in the cantinas.

It's the notebook that's worth the real money, maybe her life. It contains not only the names and locations of people involved in the narcotics business, but also the codes for the landing strips where the contraband is flown in and out of. In essence, it's Don Epifanio Vargas' (Joaquim de Almeida) bible for business, and as the cartel boss he can't afford to have this book get to the wrong people... the Federales and/or the DEA, say... or even a rival cartel. So although Teresa has grown up in the school of hard knocks, and is aware of the homicidal nature of the arrogant narcos who strut the cantinas as armed peacocks in search of sex and violence, she's a romantic. She was in love with Güero, and Epifanio was his boss ('godfather' in the novel), so surely he will protect her if she hands over this book....

The sly Epifanio says he'll drive her to the border but of course the only border he has in mind is an unmarked rectangle in the desert. This is where Güero's Colt comes in handy. Teresa, intuiting that Epifanio is going to kill her, shoots the driver and they barrel roll off the road, crash onto the desert floor. Epifanio is badly injured; she could shoot him, but she doesn't, instead limps away towards the border, stopping only to stash the code book behind the toilet in a run-down gas station.

She makes it to Dallas, becomes a drug mule for Camila Vargas (Veronica Falcón) under the tutelage of her highly capable and cute capo, James Valdez. James should be the cuddle successor to Güero, but he's all business. "The only thing you'll get from me is a bullet," he says over the cell phone when Teresa asks for help when a delivery goes bad. He's in tight himself, driving cross-town in a van loaded with Bolivian coke. Yet you suspect this is just talk, as James already admires her ability to manage risk with guts and intuition, and pretty soon they're a team. No sex, just radar love. No kiss my ass, just watch my back. It's a cruel world, a bit like living in a concentration camp. There might be a mutual attraction, but who do you trust? Especially when the padrina has instructed her handsome lieutenant to "gain her trust... you're good at it... find out what she has that my husband wants so badly."

Well, you don't need a Bachelor's degree for a career in the narco business: a cell phone, a gun and cajones will suffice. But nevertheless, knowledge is power, and Teresa has that as well. And she always goes back for the wounded, the compromised, the lost. She's not only Teresa but also a softie working on being a saint.

|| cine: faces -- head shots -- are kicked to the side of the screen, leaving an empty space for your anticipation and desire, as if you're hidden behind a curtain. Amateurish? Far from it. It's a calculated style by the director and cinematographer. Glimpses excite the mind, confirm the voyeur, suggest the forbidden. You pull faces into view, engage the conversation, listen to the language, enjoy the art.

It's easier to smash a window than open it. For years, social critics have been crying about the rise in television violence... and yet it continues to rise as the old taboos fade away and everyone has a camera. TV drama has become a commercial for sado-masochism, the most satisfying modern illness. You can have it both ways, and if you want to try it yourself, just imitate the action. Conscience is the gasp you emit before pulling the trigger.

Our fantasies become more cruel as our enemies and competitors are vaporized at the touch of a button or the chime of a cell phone. Not for nothing do the narcos call the AK-47 sub machine gun a cuerno de chiva (meaning, 'goat horn', in reference to the curved, phallic magazine), the perfect weapon for firing in a sexual frenzy. The distance between thought and action has shrunk.

In Dallas, Camila has a club with a suite upstairs where she lurks in the red gloom like a Versace lizard, usually in a tight red dress and on red 5 inch CFMs. Her movements are slow and deliberate, like a model moonlighting as a courtesan, prey to a thousand eyes even when alone sipping a mojito or conducting an interview with another narco or mule. She crosses and uncrosses her legs casually, hypnotically... a sexual guillotine between being and nothingness. She's all female power, a snake from Eden, both coarse and beautiful, a mask from an Aztec temple. Her expression changes like clouds passing, light, beautiful, trusting, sympathetic... then closing, dark, ugly and ugly forever.

You don't want to cross this lady. She's selfish, manipulative and driven. As she says, "Women don't forgive -- they have to have revenge." She also has a warehouse where her minions repackage the coke smuggled in from Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia. It's actually her husband's, but like the secretary who believes she wrote the novel she's typing, Camila feels she did the work and the business is rightfully hers. Maybe so. The operation is sectioned into cells by using chain-link fencing: receiving, cooking, repackaging. There are cells for the mules -- young Mexican women, usually illegals, usually addicts, who live in squalor and at the mercy of their male narco guards, free to run deliveries but otherwise slaves. Camila monitors this 'factory' from the comfort of her club with CCTV cameras. It's a sweet setup, pure capitalism, no taxes, no rules except money or death. She rides in a black limo SUV, speaks in a monotone husky from cigarettes and tequila. As mariachi follows flamenco, Camila is the Hispano-Indian expression of both. She lives in a coke temple, the high priestess of sex and death.

The Queen of the South is character driven as the plot is simple, really just a custody fight between Camila and Epifanio for possession of, a) their coke business, b) their daughter, and c) Teresa Mendoza, interspersed with parties, gunfights and torture. The absolute squalor that supports this flash photo of the hi-life is as depressing as it is funny. Burn me now, burn me later... one ambush after another... so rip-offs and double-crosses are the routines that separate the slaughterhouse from the penthouse. All is illusion: the gated villas of old Culiacán, the gleaming Bentleys loaded with narco dollars, the corporate party jets, the snake-skin boots, vaquero hats and chrome plated pistols and AK-47s... all is illusion: the drug factories run by sweating slaves in shabby underwear, the culverts jammed with the rotting bodies of the unlucky, the sacks of money and the bricks of blow masquerading as crates of vegetables, good for you kid, the money, the blow, the illusion. Good for you.

In Reverte's novel, he collages the corridors (or narco ballads) of the local Mexican folk groups, the cantina bands, into his exposition of the narco culture. He suggests that these balladeers, by celebrating the careers of the narcos, give them cultural validity. The desperado life is easily mythologized, romanticized, and the corridor allows a moral rehabilitation for the killer criminal. Like Billy the Kid or the Count of Monte Cristo, who cares how they made a living if that living was wild and wonderful to relate. The good need the bad, otherwise they'd never understand the difference. Filha da puta. We Sinaloans know how to live and die.

James Valdez (Peter Gadiot). Now here's a guy any aging power Queen would like to have on retainer. Besides being trustworthy and loyal, he's willing to do just about anything Camila asks. Who is he? He arrives with no history. Camila has history, Teresa has history, but James has no CV and a lot of useful skill. Perhaps you wonder if he's the pliant hard-ass toy boy lover... but there's never any evidence of that. He has Camila's confidence, he's respectful, understands the boundaries, no matter the situation. He's the same with Teresa, even though he's her field boss and mentor. He's athletic and fast, sports a mild beard, has a faint Latino look, although can pass as American white. Police radio alert describes him as a "white male, possibly Mexican, 5 foot ten". A musketeer with a Glock 9, a van, and a trailer in the woods. He's got a woman, although you keep wondering how long before he and Teresa get it on. After all, she saves his life once or twice... and he, hers. When Güero resurrects from the dead, reenters the action as another lieutenant for Camila, you have two men buzzing around Teresa, and naturally you wonder what's shakin'. "I've seen how he looks at you," says Güero to Teresa during one argument, and he repeats this later to James, who just shrugs the notion off.

James might look middle class, but like the other narcos, he's just a soldier in the dirty war. But what does he want, wonders Teresa... and he tells her. "I don't have to own the whole building... just a few bricks." The risk seems incredible for just a few -- after all, Texas has the death penalty, and he's willing and able to commit murder on Camila's behalf. He shoots her Dallas rival, 'The Birdman', himself a ruthless narco killer, so you don't really see his death as murder, just justice as a sporting proposition. Telescopic rifle, take 'em all out, him, his guards, make a mess of his post-modern hi-tech villa, leave the birds screaming in their cages. So again you wonder, who is this James? Ex-military? He's a mystery waiting to be unlocked... and you're wanting Teresa to unlock it.

Again, a great example of film character minimalism, where the credibility is left almost entirely to the actor. The same can be said about Don Epifanio's capo, Cesar 'Batman' Guemes (Gerardo Taracema). A great face can carry a film actor a long way and he has a great face. He's also a two gun pistolero in black leather with big dreams and a mean streak. At one point he kidnaps Teresa and is heading for the border intent on bringing her back to Epifanio. When a cop pulls him over, he subdues Teresa with a stun gun, but as the cop is on retainer for Camila, all Batman gets for his efforts is a pistol whipping and a fast, humiliating deportation. As James says to Camila, "There's only one highway to Mexico."

The series is more gringo when it comes to music. The mariachi corridor becomes cantina background noise while gangster rap choreographs the turf rumbles and gun battles. Georgio Moroder, the Italian composer, is credited with the score, and the updating to a more international disco pop tribalism certainly works... mostly. The main theme -- which is a collaboration between Moroder and Raney Shockne -- does sound a bit cheesy when isolated from the theme credits.

But then, is there anything more cheesy than basic tequila mariachi? The lurching polka of the sub-tropics? No matter. It's the poetry of it all that Reverte extols:

'...and other gangster (music) groups from Sinaloa and up that way, the ones that turned the police gazette into music, songs about mules and murders and lead and shipments of the good stuff, and Cessnas and new pickups, and Federales and cops, traffickers and funerals. As corridos had been to the Revolution in those bygone days, so the narcocorridos were the new epics, the modern legends of a Mexico that was there and had no intention of going anywhere or changing -- among other reasons because a not inconsiderable part of the national economy depended on the drugs. It was a marginal, hard world, of weapons, corruption and drugs, in which the only law not broken was the law of supply and demand.' (Reverte, The Queen of the South)

This aspect is jettisoned in the TV series, although you could argue that some of the narco dialogue compensates with its comic book poetics and folksy mysticism. There's an urge to speak in maxims although these lines never quite make it. Is this good or bad? The dialogue has that utilitarian feel, where the mouth starts the conversation and the face finishes it. Yet you can't say it doesn't work, as there are as many or more conversations than gunfights and expletives. A good one, for example, is when Epifanio and Batman sit in a Culiacán bistro and discuss Camila, and a bald citizen comes up and congratulates Epifanio on his run for Governor, and that he'll be voting for him. The naturalism is always convincing you of the story's validity, even when the violence sometimes leaves you numb and insulted. Dogs bark, black crows appear, and everything becomes supernatural.

Epifanio goes to the funeral of a dead narco. He's greeted by the victim's brother who fires a few rounds into the air. "Business will always trump family," says the brother, now the new boss. You smile, you might even laugh -- sure, sentimentality is for priests and singers -- although the line isn't quite as quotable as it aspires to be. The same with Batman's line (from the novel): "Dirty money spends as green as clean." It's clan culture stuff, authentic and human, but won't make you reach for your notebook.

How will it end?

In the novel, after a final and futile meeting with Don Epifanio Vargas in the chapel, Teresa returns to her villa to find her bodyguard Pote alone, the legitimate guards having left in anticipation of her assassination. So she finds herself in The Situation. How to deal with it? The lethal swarm of narcomafia that must surely be coming? It will be interesting to see how the writers of the series choose to wrap it all up. Season 3. You can speculate, of course. Camila instead of Epifanio, James instead of Guero, love instead of hate... a birth in the ruins, a baby narco Jesus to keep 'er all going, some other way, some other corridor, song, cell-phone jingle.

The famous 1950 Gloria Swanson-William Holden film Sunset Boulevard starts with a dead man floating face down in a Hollywood pool narrating his own story. The Queen of the South series starts like this, with La Mexicana lying on the floor of her villa, a bullet between her eyes. She tells her own story too as the improbable voice from the dead... yet, is this really how it will all end? Never know... it might be a false flag. Saints never die -- they just live on in the songs of the people.

© Lawrence Russell August 2018

*Check out LR's OUTLAW ACADEMIC »»

or LR's novel RADIO BRAZIL »»

Queen of the South: Camila Vargas

Queen of the South: James Valdez

Queen of the South

Veronica Falcon

Veronica Falcón talks about playing Camila »»»

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