Patricia Riggen’s first feature, La misma luna, challenges the stereotypes that have so far defined the illegal Mexican immigrant
La misma luna
106 minutes, Spanish
Reviewed by Eugene Carey
LATAMROB rating: ***
AT ONE LEVEL, when interpreted merely as a storyline, it would be easy to dismiss as telenovela mush, the kind of chile-flavoured feelgood movie that turns the tables on the evil empire for the honest mojados who prop up the Californian economy.
But La misma luna (Under the Same Moon) is filled with challenges to the stereotypes that have so far defined the illegal Mexican immigrant and it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary attempt to explore what is fast becoming a very ordinary theme.
Mexican telenovela favourite Kate del Castillo plays Rosario, a young immigrant working in Los Angeles as an exploited domestic who also happens to be a single mother forced to leave her nine-year-old son Carlitos back home in Mexico with his ailing grandmother.
The boy, played by Adrián Alonso – who steals the film with his refreshingly subtle ability to avoid the irritating precocity of many child actors in Mexico – has been separated from his mother for four years and clearly needs her loving embrace. Alonso is better known as the son of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro.
Carlitos finds it hard to understand his mother’s absence, and is resentful about what he can only comprehend as neglect. A tearful Rosario – confined to sending her son virtual kisses by phone during their weekly conversations, along with the 300 dollars a month she sends home to gran – is both frustrated and confused about how to engineer their escape from poverty. All the while, parasitic relatives with one eye on the funds that are being wired back circle the boy and his sickly relative in the expectation of better things.
When the grandmother of Carlitos dies, he takes off alone to cross the border and find his mother. We witness through his journey – armed, in effect, only with the memories of the description she gave him of the crossroads that she spoke to him from on a payphone every week – a process of maturity and a form of enlightenment that is cleverly woven into this plot by the Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen.
The border cannot keep out a young boy, who conquers it and becomes a man in the process later able to acknowledge the sacrifice his mother, the previous generation, has made for him; the demographic message here is unmistakable.
There are also some interesting and revealing cameos in a film whose cast is genuinely Latino, with all the subtlety of mannerisms and expressions that this implies. America Ferrera makes an appearance as a Latina who wants to make money to help pay tuition fees (that will secure her weak-willed brother a better future) by smuggling babies across the border into the US. She gets Carlos across, just, by hiding him in their van – but he is then abandoned by dint of misfortune to his own devices.
Eugenio Derbez plays Enrique, an itinerant worker who becomes the boy’s reluctant friend and father figure, accompanies him to East LA, and eventually comes to terms as the only real man in the film other than Rosario’s love interest with the fact that he will have to sacrifice his own dreams for the boy’s redemption. The Mexican comedy actor also reveals with great skill the proximity of comedy- which is his mainstay – to tragedy in a role that seems to fit him like a second skin.
As they search for the boy’s mother, their only clue is the vague description of the area near a payphone that she used in her weekly calls home. Again the message is striking: this is a land where time and place are shifting dimensions of life for the migrant, subject only to the laws of economics and denied a recognisable home, that she or he must learn both to negotiate but also to understand. It is the moon, in this film, that provides the only common point of reference. The final scene, in which Carlitos is reunited with his mother only to have to wait until the traffic lights turn and allow them to cross the highway, is symbolically powerful and suggests that there will come a time when this human traffic is given its permission.
In her first feature length film, Riggen succeeds in humanising the topic of immigration with this touching mother-son tale while mining the hitherto largely unexplored theme of the role of women and children in the immigration equation – and the impact upon them of poverty and separation.
It is significant that del Castillo plays a single mother – whose husband has abandoned her, also for a better life working mindlessly in a Tucson mall – and that the boy is brought up in Mexico by women. The other great influence on his life is Doña Carmen “La Coyota” played authentically by the veteran Mexican actress Carmen Salinas, who balances the role of fixer smuggling human traffic across the border for a price, with that of a sensitive and caring matriarch moved by the boy’s plight. The point being that, although everything has its price, this does not dehumanise those who have to charge it as they scrape together a living.
There are emotional grey areas in this movie which distinguish Riggen’s approach, aiming to explore the characters in the story in order to deliver its politicised narrative. It is a clever and subversive technique, and long may it last.