Monday, March 31, 2014

Cesar Chavez [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing - Archive Articles about Cesar Chavez' Life / Work at the Time of his Work
NatlCatholicReporter (M.T. Garcia) background article

LaOpinion (Los Angeles) coverage of film*
     (J. Perera) review*
     (A. Martínez-Ortega) interview w. relatives*
     (A. Martínez-Ortega) director / film in Chavez' Delano, CA* coverage of film*
Univision coverage of film*
ViveloHoy coverage of film*

CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review

HollywoodReporter (D. Rooney) review 
ChicagoTribune/LA Times (B. Sharkey) review (G. Chelshire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Cesar Chavez [2014] (directed by Diego Luna, screenplay by Keir Pearson with collaboration with Timothy J. Sexton) is a biopic that's going to feel "flat" to a lot of people.

I believe that this is in part because non-violence is never particularly easy to put compellingly onscreen (though there have been compelling onscreen portrayals of champions of non-violence.  One simply thinks of the unforgettable Oscar winning Gandhi [1992] and even the recent Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2013] reviewed here).

I believe it's also in part because the Solidarity of the Union Movement in the United States and elsewhere that so inspired Cesar Chavez' organizing efforts has been decades-long retreat -- indeed since Ronald Reagan who was elected Governor in California at exactly the same time as Cesar Chavez was organizing those migrant farm-workers of its hot arid Central Valley, went out of his way to crush the Air Traffic Controllers' strike soon after being elected President a decade and a half later.

So to most young viewers there must be an almost "Gone With the Wind" quality to the current film.  Plenty of reviewers (above) have noted that while there are streets, schools and plazas all over the United States named after Cesar Chavez, many Americans and especially the young would wonder: "Who's Cesar Chavez?"  I'd honestly go further: Many young people in the U.S. may sincerely ask "What's a Union?" With the ascendant American right-wing (and its Australian Billionaire funded FoxNews mouthpiece) answering dogmatically: "Communists" (even as the Right would choose to forget that the U.S. under Reagan actually supported Lech Walesa's Solidarity trade union in Poland as a tactic to help _bring down_ Communism ... and then "Solidarity" the joining together to oppose injustice is actually a Catholic Value, enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching, that reminds us simply that "we are our brothers' keepers" and above all ALL CHILDREN OF THE SAME GOD.

Very good, the film would probably feel to many viewers as "flat" and to many viewers (especially non-Hispanics) even "irrelevant."  If Cesar Chavez wasn't exciting in a conventional Hollywood sense, why bother make a movie about him?

I THINK THAT THIS IS WHERE THINGS COULD BEGIN TO GET INTERESTING.  For I would suggest that this movie WAS INTENDED to be this way.  Why??  To present Cesar Chavez (played IMHO excellently in the film by Chicago born actor Michael Peña) and his wife Helen (played even better by America Ferrera) and even Chavez' co-organizer Dolores Huerta (played by Rosario Dawson) as credible, family oriented, Catholic believing Hispanics.

To put it bluntly: CESAR CHAVEZ WASN'T SUPERMAN (Indeed, he may be most comparable to the other Catholic "union man" of his time Poland's Lech Walesa, about whom the Poles recently made a very good and similarly styled film Walesa: Man of Hope [2013]

Cesar Chavez was committed to his cause to bring justice to his brothers and sisters (at the time both Mexican and Filipino) in the fields.  He had principles (most notably non-violence which he did understand as coming from his Catholic faith).  But after that, he was NOT A LAWYER.  He enjoyed being out there in the field (and in the hot sun) with a bull-horn or perhaps marching "on pilgrimage" through the same said fields under the same said "hot sun" with a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and/or the Native American stylized Eagle emblazoned banner of the United Farm Workers union "to Sacramento" only to periodically "stop for Mass" (often held outdoors, in the same said fields, under the same said sun.  And yes, his was a campaign -- as Catholic as can be -- of gently but unremittingly "GUILTING" his opposition into submission ;-).

And guilting "opposition" into submission didn't involve simply guilting powerful "Evil" farm-growers often Catholic, often immigrants or children of immigrants themselves (John Malkovich playing one such, fictionalized, immigrant Croatian grower plays him perfectly ... "But, but ... I worked for all of this, why should I now pay my workers more than I absolutely have to?" "Because it's the right to do?"  "Oh mannn...!"), but also "GUILTING" _his own kids_ into submission ;-).  

There's a great scene near the beginning of the film when Cesar Chavez makes the decision to move his family (wife and count them 8 kids) FROM LOS ANGELES to "the boonies" (Daleno, CA).  Needless to say, especially the older kids, especially the oldest son, already a teenager, were/was not excited.  So dutiful and loving wife Helen calls a "family meeting" to explain their father's seemingly crazy decision to move them ALL out (lets face it) "to the middle of nowhere" and ends saying with all sincerity: "Okay, lets now put it to a vote. All in favor ... of moving ... raise your hands ..." NONE of the kids raise their hands. POOR HELEN'S HEART VISIBLY SINKS BEFORE THEM  But even as it does THE KIDS' FACES ALSO CHANGE.  HOW CAN ONE POSSIBLY "VOTE AGAINST MOM" :-) ;-)

In my continued work in Hispanic ministry going-on now 15 years, I've witnessed DOZENS of similar scenes of gentle persuasion: the Hispanic mom crushing all opposition with her tears ... Our Lady of Sorrows, par excellance ;-).

Yes, the film is slow but it is IMHO credible.  And perhaps in reading this review and looking-up some of the links I provide above, the reader here will appreciate both its intention (to appeal to a Hispanic audience) and also why Catholic priests, religious, dedicated lay leaders (including Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-NY portrayed in the film) FLOCKED TO CESAR CHAVEZ laboring OUT IN THE FIELDS, OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, OUT IN THAT HOT BEATING SUN, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Along with one of my Province's old timers Fr. Dave Brown, OSM we counted 5-6 of our Servite priests from the United States -- Fr. Marty Jenco, OSM, Fr. Mark Franceschini, OSM,  Fr. Damian Charboneau, OSM,  Fr. Albert and Fr. David Gallegos, OSM -- who along with similarly interested Servite Sisters made the pilgrimage over the years AND EVEN SPENT SUBSTANTIAL TIME with Cesar Chavez out in those fields, out in that sun, in Solidarity with the farm workers he was trying to support and organize.

So for many, this film is a nostalgia piece.  But it may inspire others today to see QUE "se puede" when in fact we choose to work together.


I've mentioned above that to many Americans, Cesar Chavez could best be compared to "fellow union man" of his time Lech Walesa.  There's also another man, Latino as well, that he could be compared to, and one who the Sisters and Friars of my Servite Religious Order also supported: Chico Mendes of Brazil's Amazon region, who set about (and was ultimately assassinated) organizing the seringueros (rubber tappers) of the Amazonian Rain Forests of Acre.  In recent years, the Servite Order commissioned a book by Brazilian writer Milton Claro about the The Amazonia That We Do Not Know.  There's a chapter there on the Chico Mendes's Last Day prior to his assassination.

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