A Family That Stays Together

From director Gregory Nava comes a modern classic about generations, history and survival

Filmmaker Gregory Nava's My Family (Mi Familia) -- a multigenerational epic about a Chicano family in East Los Angeles, which opens the 38th San Francisco International Film Festival on Thursday -- is one of the most satisfying dramas I've ever seen.

The narrative follows the changing fortunes of the Sanchez family from the early part of the century through the late 1970s. It begins with the family's future patriarch, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas of Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca), living in Mexico. One day he decides to go visit a relative in Los Angeles; not having any concept of how far away California is, he decides to walk the distance on foot -- the first of the picture's many nods to magical realism. Once there, he decides to stay, hooks up with his future wife, Maria (Jennifer Lopez), and in no time they're creating a large and diverse family of boys and girls.

Nava's large cast is superb. Jacob Vargas and Jennifer Lopez as the young Jose and Maria, and Eduardo Lopez Rojas and Jenny Gago as their older incarnations, manage to create simple, uneducated, humble characters without ever condescending to them. As the dapper gang leader Chucho, Esai Morales, an electrifying actor who rarely works as often as he should (he played Richie Valens' tough brother in La Bamba and was the main heavy in the Sean Penn vehicle Bad Boys), gives a definitive sensitive bad-boy performance; he's like a Latino James Dean, but with a swaggering, fiery humor all his own.

Edward James Olmos brings a lot of weary wit to his role as Paco, the writer in the family; his voiceover narration is understated and often uproariously funny, which tends to put the more overblown stretches of melodrama into proper perspective. (During a confrontation between Chucho and a rival gang leader, which showcases an astonishingly vulgar exchange of threats, Paco's gravelly voice chimes in, "These guys were so full of macho bullshit that it was incredible.")

In a cast of some four dozen outstanding performances, two tower over the rest: Jimmy Smits as Jimmy Sanchez, one of the clan's more troubled, younger members who witnessed the shooting death of a sibling as a child and never came to terms with it; and Elpidia Carrillo as Isabel Magnana, a housekeeper and the daughter of a prominent Central American labor agitator. Their story, which occupies the last quarter of Mi Familia, concerns Jimmy marrying Isabel to keep her from being deported into the arms of her family's longtime political enemies.

Jimmy, who agreed to wed Isabel only because his sister asked him to, assumes that Isabel will want a divorce soon afterward, so he shows no interest in committing himself to their union. But Isabel is a stubborn woman who believes that they have an obligation to God, America and their respective families to make the marriage work. What follows is a hesitant courtship between two deeply wounded souls, with Isabel repeatedly reaching out to a man who has cut himself off from everything in life; when they finally do make a connection, during a long, frenetic, ultimately life-affirming street dance, it's the most rapturous meeting of two broken hearts you've seen onscreen in quite some time.

It's difficult to imagine anyone from any background sitting through Mi Familia and not being moved. Like The Magnificent Ambersons, Giant, Malcolm X and the Godfather saga (whose director, Francis Coppola, served as executive producer on Nava's film), Mi Familia is a masterwork of populist storytelling that manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, artful and accessible. All the big events in life are represented -- friendships, fights, courtships, breakups, marriages, births, deaths, journeys, crises, confessions, even a ghost or two -- along with plenty of smaller ones.

Yet the film never feels overstuffed or overdone; it's all leavened with a refreshingly earthy sense of humor. Nava, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Thomas, displays astonishingly precise judgment as a dramatist, giving each scene its proper length and weight, making his points and moving deftly on. Talk about a labor of love: Nava empathizes with each of his characters, and his love of the textures of mid-century, blue-collar Chicano life -- crowded streets, boxlike homes, packed dancehalls, green corn, simmering stovepots -- finds brilliant expression in Edward Lachman's vibrant photography and Barry Robinson's intricately messy production design.

Mi Familia is like an old, ragged, but absurdly comfortable piece of clothing; you slip into it, hug yourself and smile, wondering how anything so simple could be so perfect.

My Family (Mi Familia) screens Thurs, April 20, at 7 pm at the Kabuki in S.F. to open the San Francisco International Film Festival. The SFIFF continues through May 4 at the Kabuki and Castro in S.F. and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley; call 931-FILM for schedule/ticket information.

 
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