Film en Español

This year's festival has lots to offer from lots of Latin countries, though generally on the light side

The gamine Watling, who also stars in the new Pedro Almodovar film Hable con Ella, is being heralded as Spain's new sensation. In this case she has the screen appeal to make a potentially annoying character endearing. Elvira's quest to understand her mother's choices leads to her own empowerment and, if not true love, at least a functioning relationship and a book contract. The other sisters similarly find happiness as they too embrace more alternative lifestyles by the end of this predictable, self-consciously kooky but likable salute to the 21st-century family. -- Judy Cantor

The Blue Diner

While Hollywood movies still portray an illegal immigrant nation of drug dealers, housekeepers, and hot hipshakers, independent Latino filmmakers try to figure out another way to fit their communities into the national landscape. In The Blue Diner, writer and producer Natatcha Estébanez presents pan-Latin culture as a panacea for Yankee materialism (and in No Turning Back,below,Spanish jack-of-all-film-trades Jesus Nebot sacrifices the immigrant hero/criminal in order to melt a new generation of Latinos into the U.S. movie mainstream).

She seems to have forgotten Spanish, though she's spoken it all her life!
She seems to have forgotten Spanish, though she's spoken it all her life!
A Honduran illegal takes an improbable trip through non-Anglo America
A Honduran illegal takes an improbable trip through non-Anglo America

Six years in the making, The Blue Diner lovingly portrays the neighborhood surrounding a greasy spoon in Boston where the Cuban owner insists on serving his polyglot patrons the special of the house: cow brains. In the meantime attractive bilingual funeral-home salesgirl Elena (Lisa Vidal) suffers a minor stroke that excises all español from her brain: She can no longer peddle caskets in Spanish, much less understand the poetry recited by her ex-boyfriend, undocumented painter Tito (José Yenque), or fight with her mother Meche (Miriam Colón), the housekeeper who works nights to give her daughter a better life.

Puerto Rican-born Estébanez is a writer for the Boston public television station WGBH, where she met cowriter and director Jan Egleson. The pair stretched WGBH startup money a long way, buying 35mm film stock left over from Titanic at half price. Director of photography Teresa Medina builds a gorgeous color scheme around the blues of the title. What might otherwise have been a rather predictable if charming romantic comedy/family drama is bolstered by the solid performances of the ensemble cast and freshened up by Elena's linguistic loss. Her befuddled looks as she walks through her own neighborhood, unable to understand any of the familiar voices on the street, is emblematic of a nation undergoing a change in language so dramatic that a film shot in Boston requires English subtitles.

Driven by Elena's need to get her Spanish back and embrace the immigrant artist she really loves, the plot follows a long Latin-American tradition that presents the culture south of the border as superior to the crass materialism of gringolandia. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

No Turning Back

This film is also an allegory for the changing demographics of the United States, although perhaps not in the way writer/director/producer/star Jesus Nebot intended. No Turning Back is the first feature from the dashing Spaniard's own Zokalo Entertainment, an independent production company he founded with the motto "Where Hollywood's doors are closed, Zokalo's are open." But don't think that means Zokalo is coming up with new views of the Latin experience. This formulaic cop thriller, conceived by an actor whose biggest English-language credit is a guest turn on NYPD Blue (before coming to the United States he had starring roles in Venezuelan telenovelas), does little to shift the conventions of the genre: The Honduran illegal immigrant Pablo (Nebot) is still the criminal and he is still gunned down by police at the end (sorry, but you will figure out the ending soon enough if you go see the film). The cinematography has all the lyricism of a Matlock rerun and the stock reactions of the racist detective ("My baby brother was gunned down in a Latino drive-by" and yes, even "They all look alike") offer as much cultural insight as a Taco Bell commercial. The plot races from improbable escape to improbable escape until the inevitable demise of the criminal/hero at the end.

What does look a lot different from typical Hollywood is the cast: Apart from a busking midget named Sexy and the dazzlingly blond Anglo family whose six-year-old daughter is killed by the Honduran protagonist in a hit-and-run accident, everyone from the stars to the supporting cast is nonwhite. Pablo and his six-year-old daughter rely on a mixed Korean/German guardian angel/guerrilla journalist to get them across the border before the African-American woman detective and her sensitive Native-American partner catch them. The cruise-line manager who hires Pablo for a trip to Alaska is queer; the cop who mistakes him for a soap opera star is Chicano andqueer. This is what Hollywood would look like if there were an end to Anglo-affirmative action in casting.

But unless you really like formulaic television cop dramas, there's no reason to sit through the succession of unlikely events leading to Pablo's inevitable demise to get to the allegorical payoff. You might have already guessed it from the synopsis above. In the end Pablo's six-year-old Central-American daughter is adopted to replace the six-year-old blond daughter of the Anglo family, and together this new nuclear unit cheerfully visits the illegal immigrant's grave. There may be no turning back, but at least the little brown ones sing along to Britney Spears. How's that for melting pot? -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

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