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DVD SAVANT

Casa de los babys


Casa de los babys
MGM DVD
2003 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Street Date April 13, 2004 / 29.98
Starring Daryl Hannah, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Susan Lynch, Rita Moreno, Vanessa Martinez
Cinematography Mauricio Rubinstein
Production Designer Felipe Fernández del Paso
Produced by Hunt Lowry, Alejandro Springall, Lemore Syvan
Written, Edited and Directed by John Sayles

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

John Sayles' has been carrying his independent production banner into Latin territory for quite a while (Men with Guns) and coming back with some of the best movies of the last decade. Casa de los babys should have been a smash crossover hit as it's his most commercial idea since Lone Star about ten years ago. But as usual, Sayles never seems to be recognized come Oscar time. Perhaps there's a technical explanation there I'm just not aware of.

Sayles' dialogues have become more natural with time and his overall plan much less message-driven. Casa is definitely about an issue but it doesn't force any opinions. What we think about instead are the six well-defined and beautifully written female roles, each acted with heartbreaking clarity.

Synopsis:

Six American women from different backgrounds wait in a posh Central American hotel while the local bureaucracy slowy approves their adoption paperwork. Their attitudes and motives vary but each desperately wants the child they can't bear naturally. The "baby resort" is a racket of a kind, with the lawyer brother (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) of the hotel owner (Rita Moreno) dragging out the process to keep the hotel bills high. But with the wealthy northerners essentially buying the country's children, who is exploiting who?

Savant loves Lone Star but has always had a problem with John Sayles' essential civics-lesson attitude: it's as if we're supposed to be absorbing the correct message as well as enjoying his pictures. As his pictures have become more interested in displaying complex problems instead of simple conclusions, they've gotten better. Men with Guns confronts the issue of Latin American violence without taking sides, yet is the most coherent movie on the subject. Hollywood would never touch material like this.

Casa de los babys takes a less volatile moral problem and examines it from all sides, encouraging us to consider the positions of everyone involved. Nobody is blamed and nobody is whitewashed. Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno) is a realist making a living from the abrasion between the relatively rich Anglo adopters and the unfortunates of her own country. She and her lawyer brother don't so much exploit the gringos as exact a high price for their services. We see the pregnant daughter of a wealthy Latina aimlessly allowing her child to go up for adoption because she has no rights. She's no more irresponsible than an American teenager but the experience is going to scar her deeply, even as the baby she produces will possibly become one of the travelers to a foreign land.

Asunción (Vanessa Martinez) is a poor local who works in the hotel. The film's best scene is a pair of dialogues between her and Irish-American adoptive hopeful Eileen (Susan Lynch). We've already seen Asunción grow teary-eyed at the sight of a lonely girl in a school playground and guessed her secret. Her pain and the need of the American tourist are both acute and the scene's poignancy comes from the communication between them, even though neither understands what the other is saying.

Any other picture would make the idea of adopting foreign babies purely a political issue with a heavy moral attached and perhaps one example (positive or negative) thrown in for sentimental duty. Casa de los babys plunges us among a variety of women who reveal themselves in an interesting way. Health-nut Skipper (Darryl Hannah) hides a horrific series of failed childbirth attempts. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to be under orders from a domineering husband to bring back a kid to bear his name. (Gayle) Mary Steenburgen is the polite "nice" one who tries to understand everyone else's point of view. Abrasive Leslie (Lili Taylor) wants a child but can do without a husband. The brunt of the "ugly American" baggage is borne by Nan (Marcia Gay Harden). She's intolerant, condescending and prepossessing of everything she sees, and yet when scratched hard enough we perceive a different and troubled person inside all that unlikeable behavior. It's a brave performance not likely to attract fan attention. 1

Basic domestic issues in American entertainment almost always come down to lame Family Values stories, often associated with cable TV movies. Bad things happen but correct thinking and spiritual guidance will prevail. Sayles's story is clear and honest about women. No matter what their politics or backgrounds, many of them want children as a basic chemical-social need and no criticism or lifestyle pigeon-holing will deter them. These mothers here not to steal children but to become mothers. One country is more powerful and wealthy than the other so the traffic goes one-way. It's a buyer's market and all the poorer nation can do about it is to make the buyers pay as much as possible.

Sayles makes things more interesting by his handling of children. The cute babies to be adopted are coddled by nuns and nanas in an almost idealized nursery. The older nurse is happy knowing her charges are going off to potentially better (or at least materially richer) lives. But Sayles contrasts this with the street kids represented by a couple of preteen beggars, one of whom is curious about reading (a gently-handled angle) but has no opportunity to learn. They scramble for pennies and at the end of the day blow their riches on spray paint with which to get high. The waste of their humanity is tragic, as represented by the hero kid staring at the stars in a drugged stupor.

Sayles also doesn't idealize Latin America as more innocent or virtuous or having any particular answers to the dilemma of bad economies and no opportunities. "Their TV is worse than ours even," says Leslie, watching a horrible talk show. There's also a glitzy lottery show broadcasting false hope. An unemployed contractor has three kids he can't get into school but unrealistically hangs his hopes on winning. For all the good it will do, he might as well get stoned and stare at the stars too.  2

I've read reviews of Casa de los babys that take Sayles to task for America-bashing, for being an issue-driven director and for just being political, I suppose. How dare he make a picture that doesn't entertain me with fake people in fake adventures, with lots of fake explosions ... Casa de los babys works because it is about people and their real problems. It takes people who care to appreciate it, and maybe there aren't enough of those around.


MGM's DVD of Casa de los babys is a fine encoding of a beautifully-shot film. The soundtrack of non-specific Latin music is wonderful.  3

The extras all come from the IFC channel, one of the production entities that weighs down the picture with the executive producers I've skipped in the credits run. They're good softer versions of the EPK fluff we've come to expect, and we actually learn something about Sayles and the film from them. Sayles' commentary is excellent as usual. He has a calm enthusiasm for his subject matter and communicates an interest in people's welfare. He's also too smart to use his podium for a soapbox, and wisely limits his personal opinions to the topic at hand - mostly acknowledging his own ambivalence on the foreign adoption process.

My copy of the DVD came with two trailers for MGM product that could not be skipped with my remote. This force-fed marketing practice is reprehensible, the kind of thing even Disney has stopped doing. Someone should be ashamed of themselves. Why do you think Americans don't run to the movie theater twice a week anymore? They hate the goddamn advertising, the garbage they have a right to escape when they pay their admission.  4


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Casa de los babys rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Sayles commentary, The Making of Casa de los babys, Beyond Borders, On Location with John Sayles IFC featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2004


Footnotes:

1. To do that, you have to wear false teeth, pack on some pounds and transform yourself from a svelte model to a bruiser serial killer ... then you will be noticed as a great actor. Marcia Gay Harden's portrait of a b**** is too familiar and almost too-well acted ... your average fan will conclude that the actress is "really like that."
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2. Even on the official website I find no clear listing of most of the Latin cast for this film, and cannot be sure of the name of the actor who plays the unemployed contractor. Apologies.
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3. Sayles shot the film in Acapulco but did not specify the actual country.
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4. I apologize in advance if this is just a problem with my particular player. Placing ads in front of DVD features is undesirable, even if they can be skipped.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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