America, America

The Perez Family is primarily a film of small moments, sometimes so small they feel almost stolen: Juan's startled expression one morning when he realizes he has embraced Dottie on the small bed they share; the look of fear and resignation on a young boy's face when an old enemy suddenly appears before him, armed and prepared to shoot; the sly satisfaction in Carmela's eyes the first time the divorced cop flirts with her.

Nair draws strong performances from her multinational cast, which wraps its collective tongue around the screenplay's Spanglish phrases with varying degrees of success. The actors hail from all over the globe -- Cuba, Spain, the Caribbean, the U.S., Mexico; there are even cameos by Indian-descended performers Sarita Choudhury and Ranjit Chowdhry, favorite members of Nair's personal stock company.

Perhaps the picture's most welcome surprise is Alfred Molina's subdued sexual authority. I use the word "surprise" because, although Molina has done superb work in a wide range of parts over the years, he's never before been allowed to play a wounded romantic. He rises to the occasion with a charm and subtlety that recalls the late Raul Julia. Molina doesn't have movie-handsome features; he has an almond-shaped face, a long, Roman nose, huge, questing eyes and the type of indistinct build that character-acting careers are built on.

But he has a movie star's sense of how to recede just deeply enough into a part that viewers want to get closer. There are always two or three things going on in his face, which probably explains why he complements bubbly Tomei so perfectly.

It also explains why, whenever Juan decides to drop his guard and confess his feelings, the effect is almost overpowering. In one amazing scene, Juan brushes his hands and mouth over Dottie's body, and as she tenses up with anticipation, he eases into a soliloquy about how he intends to kiss her, in what places, what it will mean and how she might react. It's the sexiest scene of the year, but Molina's concentration raises it to another, more profound level. For a thrilling instant, the lack of privacy these immigrant lovers must endure simply vanishes. Their feelings for one another have transformed a narrow bed in a subterranean room into something like Eden.

My Family (Mi Familia), the newest effort from filmmaker Gregory Nava, is simpler than The Perez Family, and it's also richer. Where Mira Nair views her characters from the outside in, Nava takes the opposite approach, and achieves an emotional directness that recalls other multigenerational epics about the promise and pitfalls of the American dream, including Giant and The Magnificent Ambersons.

The film isn't a towering work of popular art on the level of those movies. It's more compact and intimate, allowing its larger meanings to emerge from carefully observed moments of human interaction. It has heft but not sweep, and the story's melodrama is rooted in a primal human grittiness that is actually more reminiscent of the novels of John Steinbeck than recent Hollywood epics.

The film concerns the changing fortunes of the Sanchez family, a clan of blue-collar Mexican immigrants who find a new home in East Los Angeles. It begins when the family's future patriarch, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), one day decides to leave his home in Mexico and visit a relative in Los Angeles. Not having any idea how far away California is, he decides to walk the distance. Once there, he sends for his wife, Maria (Jennifer Lopez), and in no time they're creating a large and diverse family.

Vargas and Lopez are only two of nearly three dozen exceptional performers, all of whom are given at least one scene in which they can shine. Nava's movie takes place over three separate time periods -- the Depression, the Eisenhower era, and the '80s -- and each has a slightly different look and feel. But the movie doesn't sprawl. It hurtles along from moment to indelible moment with an understated urgency that recalls golden-age Hollywood melodramas. The picture doesn't waste a second; it runs two hours and feels twice as long, but in a good way.

There's plenty of love and romance in My Family, accompanied by many separations, reunions, marriages, births and deaths. But as memorable as these elements are, they're eclipsed by the powerful relationship that dominates the movie's final third. In it, an ex-con named Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), who has moved to his parents' home after doing time for burglary, is badgered by his sister into marrying a young Central American woman named Isabel Magana (Elpidia Carrillo).

Isabel is the daughter of a slain newspaper publisher back home, and when she finds out the INS is about to deport her, she's afraid her father's killers will be waiting for her. As in The Perez Family, a marriage of convenience will become a marriage of true minds -- and again, it's the journey that counts, and the intuitive, empathetic way the actors carry along as they move toward their destiny.

As Jimmy, Smits reveals a battered charisma and smoldering physicality that his previous movie roles have never tapped. Smits has the handsome looks of a born screen icon -- yet he plays against them with a mix of self-deprecating humor and sadness that recalls some of Paul Newman's work in the '60s.

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