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Review: Cesar Chavez -A Summary of a Leader's Story

by Carlos Aguilar
March 29, 2014 4:30 PM
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Diego Luna's "Cesar Chavez"
Diego Luna's "Cesar Chavez"

From those that focus on singular defining events in a subject’s life, to those that aim to encompass an entire existence from birth to death in a matter of a couple hours, biopics are tricky feats to carry out successfully. After all, the life of a prominent individual is anything but ordinary, thus merits being translated into film. The chosen approach will determine whether the work serves as respectful homage or if it falls short. Unfortunately, Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez fits in the second category, and not because of inadequate direction or issues with casting. Its problems are deeply rooted in the screenplay and the way in which it quickly summarizes Chavez’s struggle to deliver a satisfactory conclusion by Hollywood standards.

Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez
Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez

Structured like a bullet point-driven school presentation, the film appears as a succession of crucial events that in the end amount to a significant victory, but which also dismiss the darkness experienced by the Mexican-American leader throughout his fight. Chavez served as the voice of thousands of farm workers whose conditions were below acceptable, and for whom he felt great appreciation and respect. He felt for their suffering as he had been one of them growing up in Arizona. In the film, this is rapidly covered via voice over and the viewer is thrown into the history class-worthy facts forgetting to really give depth to Chavez as a man.

Played by Michael Peña, the Chavez portrayed here appears genuine, assertive, and honest, but it is rarely shown with the emotional complexity that person in his position must have felt. Having said this, this in no way diminishes Peña’s heartfelt performance. He is on point, and because of his great talent and commitment it is a shame the material did not provide him the challenging character that it should have. There is no denying Chavez deserves endless praise for his relentless labor, but in a film like this, straightforward glorification leaves no room for exploring the man and not simply the icon. Trying to make up for the lack of nuance written in the screenplay, the film makes a point of Chavez distant relationship with his oldest son Fernando (Eli Vargas). This never fully works with sufficient emotional weight.

As the marches, the boycotts, and other landmark protests against the greedy California growers roll out one after another, everything increasingly seems like a list of items being checked off to reach a happy ending. At the same time, the supporting characters fail to add any type of edge or interesting conflict to the story. America Ferrera as Helen Chavez only has a couple scenes where she gets to give life to the activist’s wife. A role that could have turned out enthralling settles for being generic, once again not for lack of talent from the performer but because of the genesis of the project. Rosario Dawson, as fellow activist Dolores Huerta, is equally forgettable and tragically underexploited. There is no point in expanding on the film's plot since all major occurrences are included and easily resolved, it is the lack of humanity that it is troublesome. It is sad to see such a lukewarm depiction of a passionate figure.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez is Mexican superstar Diego Luna’s second feature in the director's chair - his first being the small scale Spanish-language drama Abel – and it is overall well-crafted and well-intentioned, but it certainly looks like it could have been directed by anybody else. Luna's voice as an artist has no resonance given that the screenplay by Keir Pearson forcefully wants to package all the societal and internal struggles into a formulaic piece. One that would be better suited to help teachers introduce students to the UFW movement than to be an artistic interpretation of a man conflicted between his cause and his family. Hopefully both Luna and Peña will get a better chance in the future to create valuable work instead of didactic classroom material.

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