Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez, 2008): Mexico

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at Regal Cinemas, Los Angeles Film Festival.

The American legal system is often attacked for making it too easy for criminals to escape justice.  Smart lawyers and legal loopholes are letting the guilty back onto the streets, talking heads on TV scream.  Presumed Guilty, from director Roberto Hernandez, examines the world on the other side of the Texan fence, the justice system of Mexico.  They unravel the case of Antonio Zúñiga, a young man sent to prison for twenty years for a murder they say he did not commit.

The evidence seems to weigh in favor of Antonio.  The only witness to the crime didn’t even mention Antonio’s presence until he made his third statement, one in which he was, he admits, coached by the police.  Forensic evidence suggests Antonio hadn’t fired a gun, independent witnesses place him at work at the time of the shooting, and the police artist’s sketches have mysteriously vanished.  But none of this matters in a system where the police are paid based on their arrest record and the court system is based not on the prosecution’s attempts to prove guilt, but on your struggle to prove innocence.

Roberto and fellow law student Layda Negrete took up Antonio’s case as part of a project looking into such travesties of justice, apparently rife in this archaic, unfair system.   Based on their discovery that a prosecuting lawyer had forged Antonio’s driving license, they manage to force a retrial.  The film then tells that story, over roughly two and a half years.  Wielding their cameras in a vain attempt to force the system into honesty, they mount an offensive against what is demonstrated to be a callous, contemptuous, organization that feels itself to be both above the law and human compassion.  As a senior police officer leers at the defense council, as the prosecutor refuses to declare to the court her argument for guilt, you quickly come to realize that the man in the dock has no chance and start to wonder how these people live with themselves.

In drawing attention to such a flawed system this is a worthy film.  It is not however without some serious flaws of its own.  In its attempts to humanize its protagonist, it draws on events outside of the legal battle, plucking at the heart strings with a behind-bars wedding and a pregnancy that results from a conjugal visit (there is no thought given to the foolishness of forging ahead with a family when the mother is struggling to keep herself above the poverty line and Dad is in jail).  While it is obviously important to keep the audience aware of the human tragedy that is playing out Mexico’s jails, the film becomes too manipulative for its own good.

There is also the question of Antonio himself.  At the beginning of the film he says that he resigned himself to his fate due to some devastating, heartbreaking event in his life, but we are never told what that is.  What led him to pray for death or jail?  While he certainly seems innocent of this crime, is there another incident, not mentioned on camera that led the police to frame him, beyond their own greed?  None of this condones their actions (normally I’d complain that they weren’t given the opportunity to voice their side, but they didn’t seem keen to talk to the cameras!), nor the obviously flawed system, but it leaves niggling doubts about the films honesty which would have been better answered.

Presumed Guilty is a film well worth watching, for it draws attention to justice system that seems rife with corruption.  It is just a pity that its own tactics are more than a little suspect at times.

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