Mariachi Gringo Kicks Off the Miami International Film Festival

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Mariachi Gringo, which opens the Miami International Film Festival Friday, is the story of Edward (Shawn Ashmore, of X-Men fame), a 30-year-old guy who lives with his parents and works a lame job at a postal shop out in Greenville, Kansas. Gringo? You betcha. His skin is nearly translucent, his eyes bright blue, and his hair a strawberry blond. And he aspires to be in a band -- specifically, a Mexican mariachi band.

When the coddled young man gets laid off, he runs to his favorite Mexican restaurant, conveniently named El Mariachi, to learn how to play and sing mariachi music on his long-neglected guitar.

But Alberto (Fernando Becerril), Edward's music teacher and the aging owner of the family-run restaurant, schools Edward on more than a few Mexican jams. Through the lessons of a song and his own personal biography, he encourages the man-boy to get out of town and pursue his dreams. He builds in him a confidence, and makes him promise never to forget his purpose as a mariachi musician: "To bring music to the people." He tells Edward of Guadalajara, the Mecca of mariachi. "You should go there," Alberto says, "and learn from the real mariachis."

Eventually our protagonist grows the balls to do so, and the real movie

begins. Vivid colors, dirt, and oddities -- a trunk full of squealing

pigs; children peddling figurines from a cardboard box -- greet us on the

other side of the border. Edward discovers that the Placa de Mariachis,

the building Alberto described as ground zero for mariachis looking for

gigs, no longer exists.

Luckily, a beautiful young woman, Lilia (Martha

Higareda), who works in her family's Mexican restaurant and conveniently speaks

magnificent English thanks to her studies at an American university,

rescues our young dreamer. Bored with the mundane tasks of flattening

tortillas, she makes it her personal mission to connect him with the

people he needs to meet to make his mariachi dream a reality.

The plot seems

headed for cliché Love Storyville, until a number of truly interesting

twists succeed in setting this beautiful, refreshing film apart. Aside

from its refusal to follow a predictable plot line, Mariachi Gringo's allure lies in

increasingly captivating musical scenes, which include Ashmore's sweet,

optimistic vocals and adorable minstrel-style "come hither" gestures.

Truly magnificent are the soulful performances by his

south-of-the-border musical guide, played by statuesque Mexican star

Lila Downs, who lends mariachi an operatic flair, complete with genuine

tears. But not to be ignored is the remarkable

cinematography, particularly in scenes shot in a candle-lit square where a

rainbow-hued vigil is held on the Day of the Dead; and a performance in a

remote Mexican village where working-class residents trickle in from

across the hills to hear an emotional performance of their country's

homespun songs.

An intermediate

knowledge of Spanish would enhance audiences' enjoyment of the film, but it's by no means a requirement. Though the script-writing is occasionally cheesy, the film as a whole is a definite win,

bringing light to a love-laden treasure of Mexican culture and offering

hope to those cynics who doubt that anything his possible.

Mariachi Gringo opens the Miami International Film Festival Friday, March 2, at 7 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.

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