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
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,
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bringing light to a love-laden treasure of Mexican culture and offering
hope to those cynics who doubt that anything his possible.