Sunday, February 1, 2009

AUGUST EVENING and AMEXICANO: Documenting the Undocumented

TrustMovies has wanted to engage with both these films for some weeks but only recently was he able to view AMEXICANO, a movie by Matthew Bonifacio (director) and Carmine Famiglietti (writer and lead actor, shown center in the poster, left). Both this movie and Chris Eska's much more accomplished AUGUST EVENING are distributed by the welcome purveyor of films of Hispanic interest, Maya Entertain-
ment, and there is much to recommend in each of them.  (A recent click -- over a year after I originally posted -- on the above link indicates that Maya no longer seems connected with films of particularly Hispanic origin or subject matter. Too bad.)

Undocumented workers -- in the case of both movies, from Mexico -- are on many minds these days and will be even more so as America's unemployment grows. As with all social problems, however, the bigger picture is consistently trumped by the individual and his or her story -- in the films we watch as in the life we lead. Amexicano (the name given the lead character by his Mexican friend) tells the tale of an overweight and underemployed Queens, New York, man who, after hiring one of these "illegals" for a job, eventually come to care very much for both him and his attractive woman. Events may happen a tad too easily in the film, but they are never out of the realm of possibility. Buoyed by fine performances all around, the movie is easy to watch and its characters even easier to care about. And the two young Mexicans -- three, really, if you count the film's ostensible "villain," played by Manny Perez (pictured on the poster in red vest, at left)-- are so lavishly endowed by the performers with beauty and spirit that you'll want to (and let's hope that we will) see them again very soon. Raul Castillo (top left) and Jennifer Peña (top right) are immensely appealing, and so, overall, is this movie -- even if I wish it finally had a better command of plot mechanics and cliché reduction.

August Evening is, by comparison, an exquisite piece of cinema that gets just about everything right: story, pacing, performances, cinematography, editing -- the works. Early in his commentary to the film, Mr. Eska notes his appreciation of and influences from filmmakers such as Ozu and Ray (Satyajit, not Nicholas). These are apparent but do not detract from Eska's own gifts, which are rather spectacular, given that August Evening is his first full-length film. In telling his story of a mother, stepfather and daughter, and their extended families in present-day Texas, the writer/director probes the minutae of everyday life so well that we quickly become so thoroughly immersed in these lives that we've happy to follow them everywhere.

I am hard put to think of another recent film that submerges the viewer as deeply into the inner lives of its main characters. August Evening is such a fine combination of story, performance and filmmaking technique that I am somewhat flummoxed as to why it was not more popular. Certain critics rose to the challenge -- accepting a filmmaker who wants to present us with life as it is, minus the oft-used bells and whistles like snazzy editing, a fast pace and anything else that might turn us "on." Yet many of our arts guardians preferred to nitpick. It does not matter, I suppose, because a movie like this will never reach that wide an audience -- just as the films of Ozu and Ray did not. One must have patience with such films, devoting the time and attention that they require. Nothing less will suffice, but the rewards are mammoth.

Attention must be paid to the cast of this remarkable movie -- three of them in particular. Pedro Castaneda (above, left), who plays the stepfather and is a newcomer to acting, gives an extraordinary performance. His every moment rings true, and he is such a graceful and generous performer that it's a pleasure to watch him say or do anything at all. Castaneda comes to acting rather late in life, but we will surely see him again. In the role of his step-daughter, Veronica Loren (above, center) provides immense physical beauty, but more than this a wonderful sense of watchfulness and caution. We may never fully understand her needs or why she finally chooses as she does, but making the journey at her side proves an unusually fulfilling experience. Finally, as her beau-in-waiting, young Walter Perez (above, right) is spot-on. So appealing and real (not to mention stalwart and hunky) is this young man, that you will occasionally want to shake Veronica's character to her senses and say, "Girl, go with him!" But love and desire rarely follow the easy, obvious course, and neither does Mr. Eska's movie.

Though both these films deal with the plight of undocumented workers, in neither does this become anything close to the main subject. Individuals, in their varied complexity, take precedence over the state of their "legality" in the eyes of the viewer, and rightly so. Over time, movies such as these two (and others to come, one hopes) will inject the hot-button topic of immigration with its necessary dose of humanity.

No comments: