Film Reviews

America, America

Page 3 of 3

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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Matt Zoller Seitz