Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mortality Knocks

Family reunions are not always cheerful events.  While weddings, birthdays and anniversary celebrations often spread joy among friends and family, stress-laden holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are frequently fraught with tension and resentment, arriving with more than their fair share of emotional baggage. A long tradition of Christmas films tries to capture the whimsical (It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer), the farcical (Home Alone, Elf), the overtly cynical (How About You, Bad Santa), and the optimistically spiritual (Miracle on 34th StreetIt's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol) aspects of the holiday.  

One of this year's entries takes the road less traveled by attempting to face reality head on. Directed with great sensitivity by Alfredo De Villa, Nothing Like The Holidays looks at Christmas through the eyes of a Puerto Rican family living in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, where "familia" is everything.  While the Rodriguez clan has great gusto and deep roots in the community, there is also heartbreak, bitterness, frustration, and insensitivity to spare.  

The patriarch, Edy (Alfred Molina), has not told anyone that he is battling cancer.  The matriarch, Anna (Elizabeth Pena), thinks he is cheating on her and wants a divorce.  Youngest son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) has just returned from Iraq bearing physical and psychological scars that cannot cover his regret at having left his former girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) high and dry when he enlisted. Marissa now has a new boyfriend, Fernando (Ramses Jimenez), who is devoted to her child Hector (Alexander Bautista), and is in no mood to pick up where Jesse left off.

Meanwhile, eldest sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) has returned home from Los Angeles. Although the family believes that her acting career is going great guns, Roxanna can barely pay her rent while struggling to land bit parts in lousy television shows.  She's also worried about her former boyfriend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) who, although he now helps out in Edy's popular bodega, has turned into a neighborhood thug determined to settle a deadly score.  

Eldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his very non-Hispanic wife Sarah (Debra Messing) have become career-obsessed New Yorkers who can't seem to find the time to have children. Add in a handful of assorted friends and neighborhood punks (Luis Guzman, Manny Perez, David Fernandez, Claudia Michelle Wallace) and you have a cast of characters that is filled with spunk, carrying a large amount of attitude, and hardly lacking in drama.

While the music, language, and food bring an obviously different flavor to Nothing Like The Holidays, what really sets this film apart from so many other Christmas movies is the constantly lurking presence of death (from war, gangs, and illness) combined with heavy cultural pressure to create new life in the hope of fostering a large family.  The detail work on the interior of the Rodriguez family home realistically shows a house that has been lived in by a large and active family.  Far from the luxurious homes of many soap operas, the furniture here is worn down, clothes have been chosen for comfort against the cold winds of Chicago, and the sad darkness of the wood seen throughout the house (as well as a very important twisted old tree in the front yard) bears testament to the many years of compromise, nagging, resignation, and disappointments that have hung over the Rodriguez family.

Many of the actors in Nothing Like The Holidays are familiar faces (usually seen in supporting roles on stage and in film) who finally get a chance to shine in a tightly-knit ensemble that glows with warmth and humanity.  For once, these talented artists are placed in a majority rather than minority situation and truly given a chance to shine.

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A shy young Swiss man walks into a nightclub, sees a pretty girl playing a guitar and singing onstage, but can barely summon the courage to speak to her.  When they meet again several days later, she asks him for a huge and mysterious favor that he can't quite understand. 

Unbeknownst to the tongue-tied Emil, Larissa (who has a history of manic-depressive behavior), is about to commit suicide. Sensing the presence of another loner, she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend so that, when her parents learn of her death, they can at least cling to the belief that she had a boyfriend.

By the time Emil screws up the courage to call Larissa and ask her what the hell she was talking about, Larissa is dead and her cell phone rings at her parents' house.  Once Larissa's sister, Nora, answers the phone, Micha Lewinsky's eerie coming-of-age tale is off and running.

Emil (played with beautifully introspective moments by young Philippe Graber) is the kind of sweet and wholesome nebbish who is easily overlooked in a crowd.  Yet, when thrust into a family in mourning, his experiences following his own father's recent death come to the rescue and he becomes a mysterious source of solace. With very few words, Emil comforts total strangers who instantly accept him as the boyfriend of the deceased.  

Only Larissa's father senses that Emil might be acting out a role and taking his cues from whatever tidbits he hears about Larissa.

As Emil spends more time with Larissa's family, he finds himself drawn to Nora (who has always resented living in the shadow of Larissa's spotlight).  Too inexperienced to know whether this is love, lust, or just sheer luck, Emil stumbles from one grieving family moment to another. After a night of heavy drinking, Nora brings him back to her dead sister's apartment.  To everyone's horror, the next morning her parents enter the apartment and discover the two youngsters naked in Larissa's bed.  

It's that kind of movie.

Scheduled to be shown on January 16 at the Castro Theater as part of the 2009 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, Der Freund (The Friend) is not just the tale of a young man whose life is turned upside down. This is a quiet, intimate film about loneliness, conflicting emotions, and the confusing path to an unexpected tomorrow. With rare delicacy, Lewinsky shows how Larissa's family tries to process the news of her suicide while working through their feelings of guilt, jealousy, sorrow, and rage. Andrea Burgin and Michael Volta offer subtle portraits of the grieving parents, while Johanna Bantzer slowly blossoms as Nora.  

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Rather than end this piece on a totally depressing note, let us celebrate the fact that a new President will soon enter the White House whose background as a community organizer has taught him what can happen when people feel empowered rather than defeated, a man whose intellectual curiosity -- combined with a calm and thoughtful methodology -- embraces science, diplomacy, and the arts. If the amount of creativity that erupted in home-madeYouTube videos during the past year’s campaign is any indication, America may well be on the cusp of an artistic renaissance that is not driven solely by financial funding, but by how a person’s access to evolving technology allows him to share his thoughts and artistic vision with others. 

Brad Erickson's recent essay entitled Ask Not gives an exciting preview of how the arts (which always serve as a powerful economic engine at the most local levels) may play a key role in President Obama's plans to rebuild America.  In the meantime, as we look toward 2009 with hope and trepidation in our hearts, let us pay tribute to the circle of life in a manner truly befitting the arts:

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