DVD Review of Casa De Los Babys

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/06


  Thereís a moment in Johns Saylesí latest film, Casa De Los Babys, that is among the most poignant ever filmed. A young maid in an unnamed Latin American countryís main baby mill is engaged in a conversation with an Irish woman down to adopt. The Irish woman, Eileen (Susan Lynch, from Saylesí The Secret of Roan Inish), does not speak Spanish and gives a poignant tale about her life and desire for a child, and then the Spanish girl, Asuncion (Vanessa Martinez, from Saylesí ĎLone Starí), tells of giving a baby of hers up for adoption four years earlier, and both women touch each other, with the quiver of their voices and the emotion of their eyes. Eileen rhapsodizes about getting a child and her desires to be a good mother, as she always dreamt of, while Asuncion, understands nothing of what is said, but empathically Ďgets ití, because she gave up her child. She imagines the earnestness in Eileen and imagines her child is with a mother like Eileen. Itís a terrific moment that uses words to show how superfluous words can be.

  This is why Sayles is not only the premier independent filmmaker, but flat-out one of the best around, if not in film history. The basic story revolves around the shady Latinos that deal in the baby black market and the desperate American and European women that use the service. The prospective adoptive mothers include a bitch named Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), a New Age nut who suffered three miscarriages, Skipper (Daryl Hannah), prissy Born Again Christian and recovering alcoholic Gayle (Mary Steenburgen), butch Leslie (Lili Taylor), and naÔve scatterbrain Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose marriage is not in the best of shapes.

  Another great Sayles touch is the very Matissean strokes he uses to convey these women, each of whom only gets 12 or 15 minutes on-screen each. One of the best comes as Leslie and Gayle debate Nanís merits as a potential mom, as a crappy tv show plays in the background. All we need to know of Leslie is summed up in her comment that Latin American tv is even worse than American, and that stupidity is the universal language. the little else we find out about her all revolves around such an insight. Nan is a very unsympathetic character, who often complains of her treatment, steals from the house maids, and counters her perceived ill treatment by threatening and offering to bribe her local lawyer to get a child- she succeeds.

  Yet, the filmís fulcrum is the hodge-podge of conversations the women have about and with each other. There are a number of lesser characters, but they are not mere caricatures- one is a maid with a past, a spray paint-sniffing street urchin whose thievery is kyboshed and he fails in an attempt to sell a book he has been gifted with, another an unemployed dreamer who wishes to fly to Philadelphia, but makes scrapes out a living as a tour guide for the women. All evoke more than just sympathy, and all display that they are not mere dependents on the wealthy foreigners.

  One of the filmís strengths is its end, when Eileen and Nan get children. The film fades out on the nurses retrieving the children for their new mothers. Thatís it. No moral, no sermonizing. Just a smack of reality. Will these kids make it? Or will they come back to help America conquer their lands, as a radical would-be revolutionary, and son of the owner of the baby house, Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), believes? Yet, Sayles never preaches- each Latino character is individuated- pro and con- and so are the would-be mothers

  Another strength is that the film gives no pat answers, and seems contradictory in its approach to its many characters. Nan, especially, seems a bigot, and a typical Ugly American. This has garnered some criticism of the film, but for anyone not stuck on Disneyesque ends this film is worth viewing. This is certainly not a PC film, and that may be what pissed a number of reviewers off- that they could not, in fact, put this film in a neat box.

  There are several featurettes but they are just the typical interviews, with not much in the way of insight from the actors. Sayles, however, does give some background on why he makes the films he does, and this film in particular. Other than that the filmís soundtrack is quite well-employed, unlike, say, Y Tu Mama Tambien, another film made in Mexico, a few years ago. Casa De Los Babys, however, is the superior film in its presentation, realism, and execution. It is not the best film that John Sayles has ever made, and that may be simply that it was too short, at barely over an hour and a half- the first film since the Gwyneth Paltrow film Great Expectations, that probably could have used an extra 30-40 minutes, but it is a good one. Unfortunately there is only one Sayles around that makes these sorts of films on a consistent basis.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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