Sour Grapes and Rotten Tomatoes
The longtime compadre-collaborators on Cesar Chavez illustrate the dangers of inbred work, its well-known cuadrilla méxicana too close to one another and the national-pride material for artistic objectivity. Be it the passion of chronologically grown-up kids for fútbol in Rudo y Cursi or merited admiration for labor figure Chávez, some filmmaker distancing is necessary to balance, develop, edit, compose or, in cases like this, question, abandon all or else start over again with a modified approach. Actress-activist Rosario Dawson felt uneasy enough about the issue to puff disingenuously that the new film “doesn’t idolize anyone, doesn’t put anyone on some sort of false pedestal.”
Whether or not true to the original, Michael Peña’s Arizona-born title hero is constantly center focus but too low-key to sustain ninety-eight minutes of viewer interest, added to which every character (including him) comes across as one-dimensional. Cinema changes of stance here are minor, or self-interestedly false, and in any case individuals, situations and results are predictable beyond any prior knowledge about those involved with the several incarnations of the United Farm Workers of America.
A habitual biopic problem involves the tendency towards such bland one-sidedness, hagiographical if you will. Director/coproducer Diego Luna and co-executive producer (with John Malkovich) Gael García Bernal do indeed broach a potential subtheme in their subject’s ignored wife Helen (America Ferrera) and eight children, only one of whom is individualized at all and clichéd at that; but in this case omission would have been preferable to cursory mention from time to time.
Following lazy voiceover exposition of his parents’ having lost their farm and joined the flow of abused migrant workers in California, César appears full-blown, with no given development. Dissatisfied behind an L.A. desk, this natural organizer and leader of men and women bundles much family and few belongings into a small car and heads up to rural Delano.
In straightforward chronological order, he works some in fields and groves but mainly labors educating, uniting and unionizing the oppressed fearful Mexicans who have replaced Steinbeck’s Okies in harvesting grapes of wrath.
Seconded by Dolores Fernández Huerta (Dawson) and others who now and then shout ¡Huelga! and wave signs, he brings together in non-violent protest the mutually suspicious Chicano and Filipino communities. The baddies are racist local whites, redneck sheriff Galen (Michael Cudlitz) and deputies, archival President Nixon and Governor Reagan, and Central Valley grape growers and vintners captained by cool cynical Bogdanovitch (Malkovich) and his vindictive son (Gabriel Mann), all hardly about to surrender wealth and privilege.
Heart and soul invested in the cause, Chávez alienates resentful eldest son Fernando and, to a subtler degree, long-suffering Helen. Inspiring a financially crippling national boycott of the oppressors’ product before carrying the battle to England, he faces internal division within the movement but wins widespread support and publicity with a hunger strike that seems cinematically flat and uninspired.
Not surprising are the eventual victory and, if not physical reunion, at least familial recognition and a tear or two. Was the historical person, who died twenty-one years ago and accomplished much for his fellow men, as personally unexciting as this his film portrayal? If so, then there is not much reason for the movie to have been made, at least not like this.
(Released by Lionsgate Films and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)