Judge Amanda DeWees applauds the wisdom of traveling to Acapulco to adopt a baby, because you can work on your tan while waiting for the paperwork to go through.
Hope springs maternal.
There are certain things I've come to expect from a John Sayles movie. A perceptive, well-written script; a strong ensemble cast, working at their best; a contemplative, leisurely paced, character-driven story; a strong sense of place and local atmosphere; and an awareness that the complexities of life can't be reduced to a tidy ending. In these respects, Casa de los Babys is, I am happy to say, characteristic of this writer-director's work. Yet his refusal to offer resolution—his decision to simply observe lives in progress whose stories are, in his words, "not necessarily resolved"—left me dissatisfied in a way that other Sayles films have not. Perhaps this is because so much is at stake here. Is one's destiny really determined by chance, as Sayles suggests?
Facts of the Case
In an unnamed Latin American town, six American women are waiting to find out if they will become mothers. They are the latest residents of the hotel the locals call the "Casa de los Babys," where foreign women hoping to adopt local babies bide their time while the legal wheels grind. The hotel's owner, Señora Muñoz (the legendary Rita Moreno), presides efficiently over employees like Asunción (Vanessa Martinez) while struggling with her intractable thirty-something son. Out in the surrounding town, unemployed father Diomedes (Bruno Bichir) struggles to escape his life of poverty by finding a job or escaping to America, and homeless waif Tito (Juan Ignacio de Anda) struggles simply to scrape by. As the American women wait for Señora Muñoz's lawyer brother (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) to give them the good news they all yearn for, they confront their own hopes and motivations for motherhood and begin to assess each other's fitness to adopt a child.
As with most of Sayles's work, the plot of the film is primarily a pretext on which to bring together a range of intriguing characters so that we can watch them bounce off each other and reveal themselves. Also characteristic of Sayles's films is the way the setting of the story becomes one of the main characters in that story. Here, the Latin American setting takes center stage, and the unhurried opening sequence of the film establishes that the story is not primarily about the Anglo "name" actresses but about an intersection of needs in a place that is full of need. Our introduction to this unnamed town (actually Acapulco, Mexico) establishes its poverty, as a teenaged girl raising her younger siblings alone takes a dilapidated bus from her makeshift mountain home to her job cleaning guest rooms at the Casa de los Babys. Still young and pretty, Asunción (Vanessa Martinez) nonetheless looks careworn, never glancing out the bus windows at the breathtaking scenery that comes into view. Beauty doesn't fill an empty stomach. Nor can it sustain the street children we see, also on their way to "work" for the day—washing the windshields of cars stopped at traffic lights.
The dusty, dreary streets give way to a vision of gemlike color: fresh fruit, glowing orange and pale yellow, being carefully sliced and arranged on plates for the American women of the Casa de los Babys. The two worlds are bridged by the arrival at the hotel of Señora Muñoz, brisk and composed, seemingly mistress of all she surveys. The Señora, we will learn, is not replete with maternal feelings of her own, having been saddled with the exasperating burden of giving her political activist (read: slacker) son a job to keep him out of jail. Toward the women who come to her country to adopt babies she shows neither sentimentality nor condemnation. Doing business with these women is simply the way she has been able to support herself and her son since her husband went into political exile (and supplied himself a younger woman). An efficient businesswoman, she calmly dismisses Diomedes when he appeals to her for work.
The American women arrive for breakfast, and for the first time we hear English spoken. After more than ten minutes of Spanish dialogue, it's actually jarring, an indication of how much out of place they are. It will take time for us to get to know these women, but even this first meal hints at their widely disparate characters and concerns: Leslie (Lili Taylor) addresses the waiter in fluent-sounding Spanish, without making an issue out of it; Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is awkward and self-conscious about her Spanish, but knows the waiter by name; Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) fixes the waiter with a steely gaze and lectures him, in English, about the proper cooking of her eggs; Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) seems to be too preoccupied even to focus on breakfast. Two women are absent, for quite different reasons.
Sayles is always skilled not only at casting fine actors but also at evoking fine performances from them. Here many of the better-known actresses turn in performances that contrast intriguingly with their previous work. Mary Steenburgen, so tightly wound and brittle in Sayles's previous film, Sunshine State, is here the gentle peacemaker. Susan Lynch, who was the mysterious seal-woman with haunted eyes in The Secret of Roan Inish and the bold lesbian prostitute in From Hell, is all compassion and wonder as she contemplates the new life she hopes lies ahead of her as a mother. The scene in which she reveals her dream of motherhood to the uncomprehending Asunción is the most touching and heartfelt of the film—although equal credit is due to Vanessa Martinez, a quietly moving presence in the film. Her hesitant confidences provide an unconscious counterpoint to the other woman's, so that the two are able to connect with one another even though their actual words are lost in the language barrier. Sayles crafts moments of self-revelation like this so delicately that the actresses seem to be improvising rather than working from a script, and this is true of the entire film. Every bit of dialogue feels natural, unforced; we really do feel as if Sayles is granting us the privilege of being unseen onlookers in these people's lives.
Marcia Gay Harden, as the instantly recognizable Ugly American in the group, at first seems like the only clichéd character: Loud, abrasive, prejudiced, and full of a sense of entitlement, she bulldozes over the other women and alternately threatens and tries to bribe her lawyer. This is a Harden I haven't seen before, even to the extent of a physical transformation: Where the other actresses tend to be thin, sometimes to the point of fragility, Harden has bulked up, so that her visual presence on screen emphasizes her overbearing, pugnacious persona. Yet Sayles endows her character with shades of complexity, so that she never becomes a caricature. Lili Taylor, always an intelligent and interesting actress, brings an astringent humor and down-to-earth quality to the group. But perhaps the greatest surprise to me was Daryl Hannah, as the driven, private Skipper. Up until 2003, I had thought that, as an actress, Hannah was a perfectly good model. But between her performances in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and now Casa de los Babys, I have revised my opinion entirely. Here she gives a nuanced performance of a character whose depths go unnoticed by many of the women, who are intimidated by her beauty and athleticism and don't look beyond these qualities to see her secret grief.
The large ensemble of characters features excellent work by Hispanic actors with whom I'm largely unfamiliar, although I was delighted to see the wonderful Rita Moreno return to the big screen. In her seventies now, she is still a strong, energetic presence on screen, and brings conviction to her role as a woman who seems to be in perfect control of everything except her family. As the sad-eyed Diomedes, Bruno Bichar gives a moving face—and eloquent tongue—to the plight of well-educated, able-bodied Mexicans forced into unemployment. With the child actors playing the street urchins, Sayles proves again (as he did with The Secret of Roan Inish) how deft is his touch with children. These first-time actors give completely natural and unforced performances.
Sayles has noted that among his motivations for making Casa de los Babys was the dearth of films featuring ensembles of women, and one of the pleasures of the film is indeed seeing the dynamic of this group of disparate women, brought together by a single common interest. Watching these characters together, we get an unusually perceptive portrait of the way women really interact. Indeed, I was disappointed that we never see Señora Muñoz interacting with any of the American women. I'm sure this omission is deliberate, and it underscores the gap in experience and understanding between the Señora and the foreigners, but the separation of the two worlds is so total that I feel a kind of nostalgia for what might have been—such as the Señora unwinding over a piña colada and giving practical advice to the would-be mothers from the font of her own somewhat bitter experience. Such a loss is just one more casualty of the cultural divide Sayles depicts. From our bird's-eye perspective, we can see how the characters are connected despite these divides, and a mystical montage of lottery footage and astrological readings connects them further as pawns of destiny. But this is an awareness denied to most, if not all, of the characters themselves, and it is a perspective that creates a strangely bleak conclusion to the film.
The disc features a very respectable selection of extras, including a 25-minute "Making of" featurette in which the main actresses discuss their characters; this is a nice counterpart to the director commentary, which focuses more on the mechanics of filmmaking, offering only tantalizing glimpses of his thoughts on the characters and the way he envisions chance and destiny shaping their lives. Sayles does discuss in detail the music for the film, which was chosen and composed with characteristic care and skill by Sayles himself and frequent collaborator Mason Daring. I always appreciate Sayles's commentaries, but this one is concerned more with the nuts and bolts of making the film and less with what I think of as its heart. The documentary "Beyond Borders" provides fairly standard behind-the-scenes material and repeats footage used in the two other featurettes; it also gives away key character revelations, so don't watch this before seeing the film. An "On Location" documentary feature, the film's theatrical trailer, some pointlessly tiny images of related DVD releases, and a brief advertising spot for the soundtrack round the extras out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the documentary "On Location with John Sayles" is heavy-handed in contrast to the light touch demonstrated in the film. For 25 minutes it hammers home the message that Americans are doing Mexican children a disservice by taking them away from their home country. Where Sayles's movie depicts a myriad of important perspectives on the complex issue of foreign adoption, the featurette tramples all over this thoughtful, balanced approach. We see interview after interview decrying the imperialist attitude of Americans adopting foreign children and the alienation from their own culture the children will endure. While this is certainly an issue that needs to be considered, the featurette's ham-fisted harangue is a far cry from the subtlety of the film. The documentary becomes hard to take in its single-minded insistence that foreign adoption is an abomination, when Sayles has shown us street children who, had they been adopted by Americans, would have been far better off. When the poverty level is such that the streets are full of homeless children who steal or wash windshields to earn a few coins and who sniff paint to make their existence endurable, concerns about a child's being raised in ignorance of his heritage seem like a false luxury.
I realize that it's easy for me to be pragmatic as a member of the purportedly imperialist country, but it also seems significant that only Anglos and Mexican men—not Mexican women—maintained this perspective on camera. The Mexican women characters in the film who find themselves pregnant with a child they can't raise seem to understand, albeit reluctantly, that giving up their child may be the way to give him or her a much better life. I also find it exasperating that the documentary doesn't seem to admit that there's an inherent paradox in drawing our attention to the poverty and wretchedness of a country while criticizing those who want to remove children from that atmosphere. Indeed, the character in the film who most resents American adoptive mothers as imperialist in their attitudes, Señora Muñoz's son, is one of the least authoritative characters in the film. Formerly jailed because of his political activity, now he nominally works for his mother at the Casa in a job that consists primarily of napping, sneaking joints in the guest bathrooms, and ineptly tinkering with faulty equipment. His political convictions largely take the form of threatening to bomb annoying hotel guests and crabbing about economic conditions over beer with his friends. This is scarcely a persuasive witness in the debate over foreign adoption, and no doubt Sayles had good reason for complicating these sentiments by placing them in the mouth of such a buffoon.
My other reservation concerns the film itself. As grateful as I am for Sayles's refusal to conform to the convention of tidy, often unrealistic endings in films, I found myself wanting more of an ending to this one. His characters involve us emotionally so much that we want to know what happens to them after the credits start rolling, even if it's only to see our fears confirmed. It's certainly true that, by leaving such threads unresolved, Sayles guarantees that we will continue to think about what we have witnessed—not just the imaginary constructs of character and plot, but the real-life conditions that went into their making. Nevertheless, like Oliver Twist, I want to go up to Sayles and hold out my metaphorical bowl for more.
It may well leave you dissatisfied. But Casa de los Babys, like so much of this fine writer-director's other work, will definitely give you a movie experience that makes you think and feel. If you're seeking light entertainment for a Friday night, keep moving along. If you're up for a challenging, thought-provoking film, however, you should definitely plan on paying a visit to the Casa de los Babys.
John Sayles is asked to provide testimony to the court reporter on the future lives of his characters. All charges are dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer-Director John Sayles
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