Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source MGM DVD
John Sayles’ most recent film, 2003’s Casa de los Babys, exemplifies his approach to the intersection of the political and the personal. The setting is Latin America, in an unspecified equatorial country (the film was shot in Acapulco) where poverty and unemployment are endemic, and what economy there is depends largely on the tourist trade. In the film’s opening sequence, Sayles illustrates the downside of the global economy: busloads of working poor descend from the mountain villages and into the city center, where they work at the hotels, the restaurants, the markets, or else look for a day’s work.
In contrast to this, the film next portrays the luxuries of the “Casa de los babys,” a resort hotel where six American women await the approval of their adoption of local infants. The “Casa” is both a tourist trap and a waiting room, providing its guests with a cozy, poolside vacation even as it prolongs their stay for months on end. The film thus immediately sets up an opposition between the rich American tourists who can afford (and therefore expect) to get what they want and the local people who exploit this need (and their own pliable bureaucracy) to turn a profit.
If this description of the film sounds terribly unflattering to all parties, the characters themselves offer little cause for optimism. The film portrays the interaction of the two cultures as deeply problematic. None of the American characters speak more than very broken Spanish, and most have naïve (if not absurdly ignorant) attitudes toward their Latin American hosts (“You just want to bake them some cookies and give them a bath”; “They can’t pronounce their ‘J’s, you know. It’s genetic.”). And for their part, the maids and lawyers and waiters that cater to their needs are unsympathetic to the apparently shallow concerns of the Americans, having far more desperate situations of their own.
The film’s central scene is a meeting between Eileen, the well meaning, but neurotic Irish-American of the group, and Asunciòn, one of the Casa’s maids (played by the wonderfully sulky Vanessa Martinez, last seen as the troubled teenager Noelle in Sayles’ Limbo). In this scene, each woman delivers a lengthy monologue — Eileen’s in English, Asunci’s in Spanish — that the other woman is unable to understand. Each woman reflects on her own experiences or aspirations of motherhood: Eileen provides a cloying fantasy of all of the things she hopes to do for her adoptive daughter; Asunciòn delivers a painful recounting of her own daughter whom she was required to give up for adoption, being too young and too poor to provide for the child herself. The scene succinctly illustrates the economic and cultural divisions that are at the heart of the film, but neither character has understood a word of the other’s stories. The lines of communication remain closed.
The sense of hopelessness that Sayles presents is partly a result of the open-endedness of the film’s subjects, but also largely due to the overall flatness of the characters. This combination of politics and drama in Sayles’ films is at its most successful when each is given equal weight. In the best of his films (Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, Limbo, and others), individuals seem to live out the film’s political issues and do not feel like mouthpieces or caricatures from a magazine article. Their internal lives provide useful mirrors for their social contexts, and vice versa, as in Lone Star, where the divisions of race and the problems of history find specific examples in the personal and familial relations of the characters.
Unfortunately, the characterizations in Casa de los Babys stray toward broad stereotypes, with characters sitting in roundtable discussions, arguing with unbalanced ignorance and rarely showing personal depth. The Americans are a series of vaguely recognizable types: Eileen’s nervous kind-heart (Susan Lynch); an intense, taciturn health-nut (Daryl Hannah); a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian (Mary Steenburgen); a sarcastic, lesbian book editor (Lili Taylor); a rich girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and a frazzled, racist sociopath (Marcia Gay Harden, of course). Each character has fleeting moments of depth, but the film does not allow any of them enough time and space to develop much beyond these static categorizations. The Spanish-speaking cast fairs slightly better, but perhaps this is only because their characters are not portrayed as uniformly unaware as the Americans.
Ultimately, the awkwardness of these dramatic elements keeps it from achieving any real power. Any viewer already familiar with this particular social condition will not be surprised by the sight of illiterate beggar children huffing spray-paint or impoverished laborers striving to make a living, and will find nothing new or interesting to allow them to engage with the film. And for the viewer for whom this situation is news, the film offers only the bare bones of a complex issue, portraying it in such a light as to make it seem hopelessly irreparable. One is not likely to have enough interest or faith in the characters as to imagine that communication, action, or progress could be possible.