MORELIA, Mexico – From afar it seems like Baghdad: car bombs, beheadings and corrupt politicians.
Up close, Mexico remains magical and picturesque in parts, feeling oddly safe even in the hardest-fought territories of the drug war.
The 8th annual International Film Festival opened Saturday in the drug-plagued state of Michoacan to its largest turnout ever, drawing the contrast that defines Mexico today.
Only blocks from the site where a 2008 grenade attack killed eight people, hundreds lined the red carpet to squeal at one of Hollywood's leading men, Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Unlike the Jonas Brothers in the drug-war-ravaged city of Monterrey, no one canceled — organizers say — for a festival that also features Hollywood blockbuster director Robert Rodriguez and Monty Python funnyman-turned-director Terry Gilliam.
"I'm waiting to see the bad side of Morelia," Gilliam told reporters Sunday. "Since I've been in Morelia, I've been blown away by the architecture. It's such a beautiful place."
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose film "Biutiful" starring Bardem opened the festival, acknowledged to a full auditorium in cocktail attire that his homeland is seeing a difficult time.
But he told The Associated Press on Sunday that while violence in Mexico appears to be out control, culture and education are key to fighting back.
"These are very powerful acts of resistance because the seed and the root of what we're living is a lack of education and culture, a lack of opportunity for millions of Mexicans," the director of "Babel" and "Amores Perros" said. "To have this festival, to have the support of filmmakers here in Mexico is a very powerful weapon in expressing ourselves, in having the power to speak and to think."
The home state of President Felipe Calderon, Michoacan is the first place he sent troops after taking office and announcing a crackdown on organized crime. It's a state largely controlled by the vicious yet devout La Familia (the Family) cartel, which made its debut by tossing heads onto a disco floor in 2006 in Uruapan, a city just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the state capital, Morelia.
Politicians are under attack, on the take or both as the Calderon government arrested 35 state public officials last year on charges of ties to La Familia, only to suffer the embarrassment of seeing a judge release all but one for lack of evidence. Michoacan's sitting congressman, under indictment for aiding La Familia, sneaked into his swearing-in to gain immunity awarded to elected officials in Mexico.
Last week a radio station aired a recorded telephone call allegedly between the lawmaker and the leader of La Familia, Servando Gomez, known as "La Tuta."
Meanwhile, people linger in Morelia's sidewalk cafes and stroll the sandstone archways and cobblestone streets doused in temperature-perfect sunshine. The festival was heavily patrolled by soldiers in 2008 and 2009 after the grenade attack, but none are visible this year.
"Our life is normal," said resident Salvador Diaz, 32, who took a spin with his motorcycle club Saturday afternoon before escorting his wife to the festival opening. "The people of Michoacan are very hardworking. No, our political and security situation are not adequate, but we're moving forward."
The festival has been a chance to show another face of Mexico and another family of Michoacan: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, grandson of beloved, iron-fisted President Lazaro Cardenas, is vice president of the festival. He inaugurated the renovated Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in nearby Patzcuaro on Friday night with a showing of the 1948 Mexican classic, "Maclovia," starring Maria Felix in a story about the virtues of the indigenous people of Michoacan.
Cardenas called it a special place because on the same date 72 years ago, his grandfather, who was president from 1936 to 1940, opened the theater for the first time.
His father, former presidential candidate and Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, also attended the opening events.
"In some small towns, daily life is ruled by organized crime," he said. "But that's not the case in cities like Morelia. With cultural events like this, the atmosphere is calm and comfortable."
The festival continues to climb the ladder of prestige as it seeks to sit beside Sundance, Toronto and Cannes with 270 entries this year and 500 invited guests, including about 100 foreignors — more than in the past.
Starting three years ago, its prizewinning short films have been eligible to compete for Oscars.
"I think with Telluride in the U.S., this is the best festival in the world," said Hollywood producer Michael Fitzgerald, who has been a juror and shown films at the festival, such as "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" starring Tommy Lee Jones.
He called Mexico's drug violence "a parallel universe that none of us ever see."
"I've had to convince people in the U.S. who have heard all this nonsense to come here," Fitzgerald said, "and now they come every year."