America, America

The Perez Family and My Family (Mi Familia) don't glance off of you the way most movies do. Full of hardship, deprivation, bitterness and death -- yet maintaining an ultimate optimism -- they stick with you, even haunt you. The two films share a basic narrative of outsiders trying to build new, better lives in the United States. But they also share more: archetypal scenes that will be familiar to many immigrants and their descendants. The long, dangerous journey to America; a large family packed into a tiny room; temptation by greed and crime; the relentless grind of degrading, low-wage jobs; and the defiantly humorous ways people find to make those jobs bearable.

Most of all, the movies share a melancholy, accepting quality -- one borne of a precarious balance between disappointment and hope, regret and contentment. The characters of The Perez Family and My Family are intimately familiar with the sadness and horror America can inflict, yet they accept such things as the price of a new beginning -- a duty levied in the form of heartache. They know they will persevere, and that, God willing, each successive generation will endure less and achieve more.

As Dottie Perez, a young Cuban immigrant in The Perez Family, Marisa Tomei is hunger incarnate. She revels in new experiences so intensely that at times she seems to literally absorb them through her pores.

When the small vessel that bears her and her fellow immigrants to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift is stopped a few hundred yards from the harbor for a routine Coast Guard boarding, she's so full of adrenaline that she dives into the waves, swims all the way to shore, then kneels in the shallows, cups her hands and splashes herself with water from her new home's shoreline.

Watching her wriggle, flirt and dance her way through her new life in Miami, fantasizing about all the men she can have and all the things she could buy (if only she had the money), you can't help thinking that Dottie is going to fit in just fine here. On arrival, she's free of encumbrances. But she's forced to develop new ones at the behest of the INS, which will deport anyone who isn't claimed by an already established immigrant family. So in short order Dottie hooks up with a 13-year-old "son" named Felipe (Jose Felipe Padron) and a "grandfather" named Armando (Lazaro Perez), who's so mysteriously shell-shocked that he keeps shedding his clothes and climbing naked into the highest boughs of tall trees expecting to see Cuba in the distance.

Dottie gains a "husband," Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), who she met on the boat. For his part, Juan has come to America to search for his wife, Carmela Perez (Anjelica Huston), who was separated from him 20 years ago when he became a political prisoner.

Unfortunately for Juan, Carmela has become a different person while waiting for word of his fate. She got a good job at Saks Fifth Avenue, and her memory of her imprisoned spouse has become idealized, even a bit abstract. Now, after many years of celibacy, she finds herself attracted to a divorced Italian-American cop (Chazz Palminteri).

Boil away all the plots, subplots and sub-subplots in The Perez Family and what you're left with is a comedy, and a romantic comedy at that. The picture's central component is a farcical romantic triangle. Dottie and Juan are forced by circumstance to live together in the basement of a Catholic church, and while Juan pines for his real wife, Dottie gets involved with a freewheeling Anglo man she believes is sophisticated and rich, but who's really just a possessive lout who parties beyond his means. It's obvious that Dottie and Juan will eventually have to let go of their illusions and realize they're destined to be together, and that Carmela will finally break down and admit that her brash, new love holds more promise than her old, faded one.

For the Perezes, it's the journey that matters, and the same is true of the movie's plot; a film like The Perez Family sinks or swims on the strength of its performances and its mood. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter Robin Swicord keep a slight distance from their characters, which gives the picture a ragged, anecdotal and reassuring tone that keeps undercutting sentiment with earthy jokes and reminding you that this immigrant tale is merely one among millions. Swicord, who wrote last year's Little Women, has a lush, neatly ordered, old-movie storytelling sensibility, while Nair, who established herself as a premier cinematic chronicler of immigrant stories with Mississippi Masala, favors a more quirky, ironic tone.

The two approaches complement each other. The film takes its situations seriously and never condescends to any of its characters, even when they're venal or buffoonish. But at the same time, it manages to develop (and sustain) the colorful, whirling, lighter-than-air feel of a picaresque fable. The film has a lovely porous texture that allows the actors to develop moments of genuine pathos and anger within slapstick scenes.

When Juan, Dottie and Armando sell flowers on a street corner, the indignity of their predicament gives way to playfulness when we see how Dottie approaches the job -- by literally dancing her way to profit, wiggling her hips and curling her mouth into a grin that's both ecstatic and pouty, amusing female drivers and driving males into a dizzy trance.

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.

As Isabel, Carrillo pulls her performance straight from her gut. Isabel is a religious woman who believes a marriage of convenience is blasphemous and divorce a ticket to hell; she keeps working on Jimmy, flirting with him and cajoling him, doing whatever she has to do to break down his defensive walls of bitterness.

She succeeds in a scene that ranks as one of the most touching dance sequences ever recorded on film -- a languorous, funny, sexy scene in which Isabel takes Jimmy away from repairing a car and prods him into doing a mambo on the street in front of his apartment. The notion of dance as a metaphor for courtship has rarely been expressed with such precision. Soon they're holding tight to one another, laughing, and then they're upstairs in Jimmy's bed, confessing their darkest fears to each other with touching frankness.

As staged by Nava, photographed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, and performed by Smits and Carrillo, the scene is so intimate and emotional that it's almost too painful to watch. We feel that we're spying on the most important union of these lovers' lives; we're witnesses to the fusion of two souls. As they face each other, weeping and embracing, their coming together transcends sex. They're like two halves of a broken locket finally reunited.

The scene is indicative of My Family's economy of means, and of its determination to reveal its characters in the most basic, emotional terms possible. The film is a masterwork of populist storytelling. Nava doesn't draw a line between moments of deprivation and contentment. The two are always intertwined.

This idea is resonantly expressed in the film's final scene. The elderly Jose and Maria Sanchez sit on their front porch, thinking back over their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. They've endured so much misery that we're primed for a big speech -- for some kind of acknowledgment that life has been cruel to them and that they deserved better. They don't say anything of the sort. Instead, Maria says, with disarming brevity, that the Sanchez family has had a good life. Her husband thinks about it for a moment and then agrees.

"Yes," he says softly. "We have had a good life."
Beneath the simplicity of their words is a message of extraordinary complexity. It's not the sort of thing you can summarize in a lifetime, let alone a single film. The Sanchezes say they've had a good life because they are alive, in good health, and surrounded by friends and loved ones. And because you have to be brave to live in a brave new world.

The Perez Family.
Directed by Mira Nair. With Marisa Tomei and Alfred Molina.
Rated R.
110 minutes.

My Family (Mi Familia).
Directed by Gregory Nava. With Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos.
Rated R.
122 minutes.


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