July 21, 2009

Review of Tortilla Heaven

Tortilla HeavenIn the desert town of Falfurrias (pop. 73) stands Tortilla Heaven, a Mexican restaurant run by Isidor (Jose Zuniga), who discovers an awe-inspiring image burned into one of his freshly made tortillas: the face of Jesus. "You can't keep a miracle a secret," intones Isidor's wife (Elpidia Carrillo) prophetically, and soon the entire village has been whipped into a frenzy of flatbread worship, hailing the oversized communion wafer as a sign from God.

The tortilla does appear to have wondrous healing properties: Its mere proximity jumpstarts the engine of a broken-down truck and even brings a dead pig back to life. As for that little boy in the wheelchair, it doesn't take a leap of faith to guess that he'll be walking by the end of the movie.

But things start to turn sour when super-oily opportunist Gil Garcia (Miguel Sandoval, NBC's "Medium") rolls into town and takes over management of Isidor's restaurant operation. As word of "the Holy Tortilla" spreads and tourism begins to thrive, the town begins to lose itself in an orgy of greed, petty squabbling and reckless overspending that ensnares everyone from the local authorities (Geno Silva, Lopez) to the local priest (Marcelo Tubert).

First-time feature director Judy Hecht Dumontet (who wrote the screenplay with Julius Robinson) clearly intends "Tortilla Heaven" to be a zesty ensemble entertainment, operating in a broadly comic vein while creating a sense of authentic, lived-in community. Helmer's primary strategy is to have virtually every scene lapse into prolonged hysterics, often with salsa music blaring festively in the background; overly jumpy cross-cutting (by a trio of editors) doesn't help.

Pic's almost exclusively Latino and Native American cast is mostly reduced to playing folksy caricatures, feverishly crossing themselves and peppering their Mexican-accented English with the odd exclamation in Spanish.

Comment:  This review is pretty accurate. Tortilla Heaven starts off as one of those freewheeling ethnic comedies where everything is about food and family. Where the characters' names don't matter because there are so many of them and they're all playing familiar types.

Once Gil Garcia arrives, the movie goes downhill. Garcia is a snake-oil salesman whose smooth patter bedazzles the simple townfolk. When he tells Isidor to sign a management contract, Isidor doesn't even read it. Soon everyone is handing over their life savings to a Tortilla Heaven "investment club."

Tortilla Heaven relies on some unfortunate Latino stereotypes. Everyone is hotblooded, warmhearted, and impetuous. Only one person has an education and the others think she should get married and have a baby. It's life as you might imagine it in a stereotypical Latino hamlet.

The Native aspects

Tortilla Heaven was filmed in Dixon, New Mexico, which is 50 miles north of Santa Fe. It takes place in the fictional town of Falfúrrias, population 73. The people and culture are Latino, but they could be part Native. Nestled in the hills, accessible only by dirt road, the town resembles a small Indian pueblo.

Although no one's identified as Native, three of the actresses are Native. They come off surprisingly well.

  • Liberata (Irene Bedard) is the tow scholar who's studying for the civil service exam. Thanks to the tortilla (?), she passes.

  • In her big scene, she plays a judge who arbitrates a dispute between two tortilla-mug sellers. It's ridiculous that her civil service exam would qualify her to be a judge. And she's too unsure of herself to handle the conflict. But it's not often you see a Native woman as an authority figure.

  • Dinora (Judy Herrera aka Jade Herrera) plays a high-school girl (even though she must be pushing 30). She's interested in oceanography and space exploration and seems to be another character who has a future in academia.

  • Caridad (Elaine Miles) plays the wife of Bulmaro the rancher. He's kind of a buffoon who doesn't realize what's going on until it's almost too late. But she has a quiet dignity as she stands by him and protects her children.

  • There are a couple more Native bits. Gil Garcia plans to open a Tortilla Heaven casino as if the town is Native rather than Latino after all. Even with the town's money, the chances of him succeeding are approximately zero.

    In a cave, Dinora notes that Indians lived there before the Spaniards arrive. A soaring hawk at the beginning and end suggests a (cliché) Native vibe. And one scene has a wooden Indian in the background.

    Tortilla Heaven turns into an almost slapstick comedy where characters turn into caricatures--mere mouthpieces for greed. But an epilogue with Jesus (!) at least makes you think a little. Rob's rating: 6.5 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

    1 comment:

    dmarks said...

    "feverishly crossing themselves and peppering their Mexican-accented English with the odd exclamation in Spanish."

    Sounds like the Simpsons bee-man!

    The last ethnic comedy I viewed was "Born in East L.A.". Recently, not when it came out.