Judge Michael Nazarewycz could use a little help around the house.
"I'm not Mary Poppins."
Nanny-centric stories have quite the place in film. Whether historical (Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music), comical (Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire), or simply magical (Andrews again, in Mary Poppins), the nanny as a central character has been a fixture in Hollywood across genres and generations. Why should independent foreign films be any different?
Facts of the Case
Ben (Patrick McKenna, Stuck) is a dentist and Gail (Claire Lautier, Ghost Town) is a doctor. The couple, with their daughter Mali (Maya Ritter, Finn's Girl), live what appears to be an enviable, upper-middle class life in a Canadian suburb. All is not what it appears to be, however, as evidenced when their car is repossessed. Frivolous spending, bad investments, and a struggling economy have left the family in dire fiscal straits. In addition to other household cutbacks, the family is forced to fire their six-year live-in nanny, Margarita (Nicola Correia Damude, Havana 57).
Margarita has been more than just a nanny, though. She has been a chef, a maid, a repairman, and a surrogate big sister to Mali—practically raising the young teen while the parents built their careers and drifted away from their daughter. Still, losing her job is not Margarita's only concern. She wants to marry her girlfriend, Jane (Christine Horne, Sex After Kids), but Jane has fears about coming out to her family; Margarita's best friend, Carlos (Marco Grazzini, TV's animated Total Drama), is madly in love with her and thinks he can make her straight; and, perhaps most critically, Margarita is an illegal immigrant.
Co-directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert (both for Finn's Girl) have made a delightful and charming film in Margarita, thanks to two key things: they never let the film get too heavy, and they cast as their title character the wonderfully enchanting Nicola Correia Damude.
While Canadian in production and setting, this film touches on issues that are popular here in America as well: immigration, the economy, and, of course, same-sex relationships. The filmmakers are shrewd not to politicize the first two issues; they are simply cause-and-effect plot devices. No one rails for or against any political party or social movement, no one delivers an impassioned speech about how things need to improve, and no one guilts anyone else into changing positions. The characters deal with (or avoid) their circumstances the way you or I would deal with (or avoid) the same circumstances. It's refreshing because I can get all the screeds I want from twenty-four-hour news channels; I don't want them in my films.
How Cardona and Colbert handle the issue of same-sex relationships is cleverer still. To begin with, Margarita's sexual orientation is treated no differently than her Mexican heritage: it's who she is. The film opens with her and Jane in an outdoor hot tub. When Ben and Gail come home and find the couple there, they don't blink. I won't kid you, it was almost shocking to me. The "Oh my God, you're gay?!" response seems so common in entertainment that to not see it is to have presented to you the way society should be all the time. Yet the filmmakers are equally as wise to recognize that the "Oh my God, you're gay?!" response still exists, but rather than present it somehow onscreen, they make it part of Jane's off-screen struggle with introducing Margarita to her parents. Jane knows that not only will her parents have this reaction, there will be consequences. The subtlety of this is so very smart.
Speaking of smart, casting Nicola Correia Damude is the smartest decision the filmmakers made. You can't take your eyes off her, but it's not because she gives a tour de force performance—she doesn't. What she gives is practically the opposite, yet wildly better: a performance as genuine as I've seen in a very long time. I'm not one to normally research an actor beyond IMDb, but I did in this case, and her resume explains why she is so good. While her film and television work has been relatively limited, she has performed in myriad plays ranging from Steel Magnolias and Pal Joey to Macbeth and Jesus Christ Superstar. She's done actor's acting, and it shines here. Like a rising tide lifting all ships, her genuineness leads to remarkable chemistry between her and everyone else, especially Horne (her most important relationship).
All images in Margarita are crisp, highlighting how cinematographer D. Gregor Hagey (Suck) captures the lush imagery of the film's Latin-flavored color palette, especially during sequences involving food prep. The sound is a little uneven, though. Quieter moments, like when Margarita is cooking, sound very clear. As much as I love the score—again with the great Latin flavor—I found that when it played over softer moments, it drowned out ambient noise.
Other than this film's trailer and other trailers for Wolfe films, the only extra is a 12-minute short film from 1999 titled Below the Belt, from Margarita's directing duo. The film revolves around a young lesbian couple, their secret relationship, and an even more surprising secret held by one of their mothers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A minor concern is that the film is a little empty in its early stages. There are scenes of Margarita living her daily life that establish her routine but run on a little too long, eating into time that could have been better spent on developing other characters, like Ben and Gail. Speaking of whom, a greater concern is that the couple is beyond caricature. In their lighter moments, Ben and Gail belong in a bad sitcom; in more serious times, they feel as if they've been plucked from an afterschool special. It's contagious, too. Where the scenes between Mali and Margarita are tender and sincere, scenes with Mali and her parents smack of a "very special episode" of some 1970s TV drama. Were it not for the strength of the Margarita character, Ben and Gail could have sunk the film.
While a lot of history is left to be made before a direct comparison can be drawn, I found Margarita to invoke the spirit of a Capra picture, albeit Capra for the marriage equality generation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
• Short Film
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