By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 15, 2014 at 2:16PM
We may think we know about the late great activist Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers. We may remember their long strike and call for a grape boycott in the 60s, and his 1969 Time Magazine cover as Man of the Year, among other things.
Mexican actor-producer-director Diego Luna, who co-starred with his Canana partner Gael Garcia Bernal in Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien," grew up in the theater, raised by his single art director dad. Luna has made some 40 films in his 34 years, mentored by Cuaron and Luis Mandoki. Luna, who made his directorial debut with fest-circuit fave "Abel" (my Sundance flipcam interview here), took on the daunting task of turning the life of Cesar Chavez into a film. In some ways movie star Garcia Bernal ("No") is the Mexican Matt Damon to Luna's Ben Affleck, in the sense that Luna has figured out his true calling: filmmaker.
Luna started paying closer attention to Chavez around the time that Mexico was mourning his death in 1993. Why was he such a big deal? Luna pursued this film, which is written by Keir Pearson ("Hotel Rwanda") and Timothy J. Sexton ("Children of Men"). Canana and its "Miss Bala" producers Pablo Cruz and Mr. Mudd's Russ Smith, Lianne Halfon and John Malkovich raised some $9 million from Participant Media and foreign guarantees and shot the film with hand-held cameras in Sonora, Mexico.
Luna cast superb character actor Michael Peña ("Wall Street," "End of Watch") who tells me in the video below that playing this almost saintly real-life figure--who was a recessive man and not a charismatic speaker-- was a tough acting challenge. Peña stays believable by not turning on the charm, much the way Bruce Dern did in "Nebraska." Malkovich plays a powerful farmer who fights hard against the farm workers without turning into a cardboard villain, with Gabriel Mann as his son.
The filmmakers had to balance the demands of the family--Cesar's youngest son Paul Chavez and NFWA co-founder Dolores Huerta came to the rousing SXSW North American premiere, where the crowd stood and cheered "Si se puede!"--with the need to deliver an accessible and engaging entertainment. This Luna managed to do--after an arduous editing process.
The film moves at a good clip and does not get bogged down in the usual cradle-to-grave details of such earnestly hagiographic enterprises as "Mandela: The Long Walk Home." This cuts a manageable slice during the California activist's push from 1962 through 1970 to unionize oppressed farm workers in the Central Valley, creating a credit union and a weekly newspaper and dramatizing the farmers' plight in Washington, D.C. where Senator Robert Kennedy chastises the growers for trampling on the Bill of Rights. Hugely important to Chavez are his wife Helen (well-played with sexy spunk by America Ferrara) and Huerta (the always solid Rosario Dawson).
It's also a father-son story, as Chavez tries to balance the demands of his mission with his eight children, who were uprooted from urban D.C. to return to the bare-bones farmworker life that formed Chavez. Fernando (Eli Vargas) doesn't appreciate suffering repeated school beatings as the result of what his father does for a living. "We're not going to survive Nixon," Chavez says at one low point.
Chavez and his striking workers had to suffer through five years before the wealthy farmers--suffering a costly boycott--finally agreed to sit down at the bargaining table. Chavez also endured a lengthy hunger strike to force the farm workers to agree to a pledge of non- violence. This is dramatic stuff. Luna uses immersive hand-held cameras to capture real human moments and flashes of humor: after Helen returns from prison, she tells her husband she had a good time, meeting all sorts of cool people, including one guy who slept next to her. Chavez is jealous. "I'm glad you had fun in jail," he retorts.
Lionsgate's Spanish-audience releasing arm Pantelion Films will open the film on 600 screens on March 28. Chavez is an icon for the Latino community; I will be curious to see if there's any arthouse crossover. The film unfortunately landed a Variety pan out of the Berlin Film Festival. It played like gangbusters in Austin, Texas.
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