Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Human Being Is Illegal

Filmmaker Patricia Riggen said in a recent interview that she didn't originally set out to make a movie about immigration. When she first read a script by Ligiah Villalobos that had sat unproduced for six years, immigration wasn’t yet the incendiary subject of Lou Dobbs demagoguery. Riggen, a former journalist who grew up in Guadalajara, was captivated by the narrative about a mother and son separated by national borders, seeing in it a universal story of family love.

The script became her feature film debut, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), a lovely, affecting story about a young Mexican woman, Rosario (Kate del Castillo), who works illegally in Los Angeles, and the efforts of Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), the 9-year-old son she left behind in Mexico, to join her after his grandmother dies. The movie received a standing ovation at the 2007 Sundance festival, and was bought by Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company for $5 million, the highest price ever paid for a Spanish-language film.

The narrative gracefully alternates between Rosario’s life in L.A. and Carlito’s in Mexico. Rosario’s life is typical of many undocumented workers: riding the bus before dawn, cleaning houses for demanding wealthy wives, sewing dresses for extra money, and staying one step ahead of immigration officials. Carlitos is well cared for by his loving grandmother (Angelina Peláez), but painfully misses his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. He looks forward to her weekly calls from a corner pay phone.

At Carlito’s birthday party, his neighbor Manuel (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) reveals that he’s really his uncle, brother of the father he’s never known. Manuel wants Carlitos to live with him, a scheme Carlitos’ grandmother suspects has to do with the support money Rosario sends every month.

Carlitos awakens one morning to find that his grandmother has died in her sleep. Fearing Manuel’s machinations, Carlitos determines to go to the U.S. in search of his mother. He enlists the help of Marta (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera), a second-generation Latina trying to raise college tuition money by smuggling babies across the border.

Things go awry at the border gate, leaving the boy undetected but alone and without money. He soon finds himself at the mercy of human traffickers and INS agents, then in the reluctant company of Enrique (Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez), who wants nothing to do with a kid (“I travel alone,” he insists). The pair embark on a journey to find Carlito’s mother, stopping to work in a restaurant and to look for Carlitos’ father.

Gradually Enrique warms to the little boy, who confides that his mother told him to look at the moon — la misma luna, the same moon she is looking at — whenever he felt lonely. Rosario, meanwhile, is unaware that her mother has died or that Carlitos is looking for her. After she is fired from one of her cleaning jobs, she despairs of saving enough money to get her citizenship and bring Carlitos to live with her. She must decide whether to return to Mexico or marry Paco (Gabriel Porras), a Mexican immigrant who has his citizenship papers and a big crush on Rosario.

This is a very sentimental story that is certain to raise a tear or three, but Riggen balances the sweetness with a wry, knowing perspective on the mechanics of border crossing and the lives and attitudes of undocumented workers. Popular Latin radio deejay El Cucuy is heard musing on the immigrant background of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has signed anti-immigration measures, and a song, “Superman Es Ilegal,” complains that Superman, from Krypton, is an illegal immigrant, but preferred because of his light skin. Paco, the naturalized citizen, offers Rosario a capsule version of American history: “First they screwed the Indians and the slaves, and now us poor Mexicans.”

The movie won’t change anyone’s attitude about immigration; CNN anchor Dobbs, for instance, who warns viewers that Mexican immigrants are “an army of invaders” intent on reannexing parts of the southwestern U.S. to Mexico (which would only be fair, since we stole it from them), clearly would not be moved. But for all but the most rabid protectionists, there is much to appreciate in this touching, humane film.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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