It’s hard to believe twenty five years have passed since Gregory Nava co-wrote and directed the sobering immigration epic, “El Norté.” Hard to believe because nothing seems to have changed: the debate over undocumented workers or their overall plight. If you can trust the headlines the situation has only gotten worse.
“El Norté” depicted the trials of a brother and sister who flee war torn Guatemala only to arrive at a different battlefield in Los Angeles. Nava’s movie was inspired in both form and content. No one has made a more powerful drama on the subject. Grab the DVD and you’ll see.
But now two young filmmakers, writer Lighiah Villalobos with a background in TV and documentaries, and Patricia Riggen, a narrative director, have delivered their own take on the problem of borders. And while “Under the Same Moon” lives in the long shadows of “El Norté,” it carves out ample territory of its own. On top of that it’s a real crowd pleaser.
Rosario, (Kate del Castillo) a single mother, has made her way north to find a better life. She works two jobs in order to send money home to her aging mother and nine year old son, Carlitos, (Adrian Alonso.) Each week the two connect via pay phone to chat about an imagined point in the future when they’ll be reunited, hopefully in Los Angeles. But when the grandmother dies Carlitos decides that it’s no longer enough for he and his mother to dream under “la misma luna” (the same moon.) Having seen a woman arrange border crossings, and with a vague idea of where his mother might be, the boy takes off on his own. A predictable series of events ensue, but the many rich details and the winning cast keep the movie one giant step ahead of its audience.
Carlitos is hardly the average nine year old. Street wise but hopeful, he’s like a little man in a boy’s body. This makes all the difference at points where his arduous journey stretches credulity. But even then we never doubt his determination or daring. Credit this to terrific casting. (In a recent Q and A Villalobos said that it took a year to fill the part.)
Kate del Castillo, as the mother, has a larger problem; her role is stitched from well worn cloth. In spite of it she keeps her head above the quicksand of cloying sentiment. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a natural beauty.
The movie has a final trump card in Mexican comic Eugenio Derbez, who plays Carlitos’s reluctant travel partner. There’s an old show biz adage that advises against playing opposite kids and animals. Derbez wins us over by staying true in every scene. There’s none of the glib mugging comics usually resort in their film debuts. This character is built through small gestures and offhand moments, that culminate in an understated but heart-rending conclusion.
Even when “Misma Luna” becomes schematic the details feel genuine: exploitative jobs, hardscrabble towns and road stops, loosely formed bonds that dissipate when “la migra” (the immigration police) show up. The story is also aided by skillful camera work and efficient editing.
The talent pool of Mexican directors runs deep. In the past decade at least three have created huge international careers largely on their own terms: Alfonse Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro. For those unfamiliar with their work a brief recap.
Cuaron, after several features on his home turf, made a well respected version of “A Little Princess” in English, then went back to Mexico and directed “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which became a huge hit. “Mama,” a sexy neo-realist comedy, proved that a sexy movie in Spanish could cut it everywhere. Cuaron also directed perhaps the most energetic of the Harry Potter series.
Inarritu stormed the festivals with “Amorres Perros,” a stunning triptych on Mexico City, then continued along similar lines with the multi character dramas “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Inarritu is a confident stylist, although I wasn’t persuaded by either of them. For the most part the characters felt moored to a reductive world view that sold them short.
Del Toro came up in the horror genre. His “Cronos” boasted an original vision and startling visuals. “Mimic,” more horror, about a race of human like cockroaches living in the subway, was several steps above the ordinary. Then came “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a genre-bending fantasy that saw international acclaim and success.
And let us not forget Luis Mandoki, an immaculate craftsman who has been working both here and in Mexico since the 80s. His under seen and under-appreciated “Innocent Voices” vividly portrays the tragedy of poverty stricken children forced to become soldiers during the ghastly civil war in El Salvador. It deserved a wider audience here, but lives on in DVD.
I’m eager to see what Patricia Riggen and Lighiah Villalobos come up with next.
A final note: “Misma Luna” opened in approximately 260 theaters, a large scale “limited” release. The first weekend it averaged a walloping 10 thousand per screen. While this is an exception rather than the rule it’s worth noting that the film is in Spanish, has no major stars, and no violence. The material, fronted by an aggressive campaign, found an audience. Someone should take notice.