"Under the Same Moon"—Illegal Immigration Goes To The Movies
June 08, 2008, 09:46 PM
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From my review last spring in The American Conservative:

"Under the Same Moon"

The once-lively Mexican film industry stagnated after it was nationalized in the late 1950s, but revived in 1990s with the loosening of the government`s velvet stranglehold on the arts. By last year, three art house films by Mexican directors, "Babel," "Pan`s Labyrinth," and "Children of Men," garnered a total of 16 Oscar nominations.

Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans in the United States continues to soar, eliciting the interest of movie moguls hoping somehow to woo the enormous, but opaque illegal immigrant market away from the Univision television network. (Mel Gibson`s "The Passion of the Christ" was a huge hit among undocumented filmgoers, but Hollywood would rather not remember that missed opportunity.)

Expecting synergy, the Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight paid $5 million at the 2007 Sundance film festival for "Under the Same Moon," a sentimental family film made by Patricia Riggen, daughter of a Guadalajara surgeon. (Part of its $2 million budget was provided by the Mexican government.)

"Under the Same Moon" tells the dual stories of a nine-year-old boy who stays with his grandmother in Sonora and his illegal immigrant mother, who has lived in a garage in East L.A. for four years so she can send him $300 per month she earns cleaning expensive homes. Neither one has a telephone (perhaps due to the high phone charges imposed by Mexico`s private landline monopoly, which has made its owner, Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world), so mother and son communicate only via a Sunday morning call from payphone to payphone. When the lad`s grandmother dies, he pluckily sets off for LA. Meanwhile, not knowing he`s on his way, she vacillates over whether to marry a handsome security guard with a Green Card, or return to Mexico to be with her son.

Theorizing that "Under the Same Moon" could be, in the words of the old Saturday Night Live parody ad, both a floor wax and a dessert topping, the studios released it simultaneously in both downscale theatres in Latino neighborhoods and in upscale cinemas for Anglos who like socially conscious foreign films with subtitles.

Through inept planning, I managed to check out both prongs of its novel marketing strategy. By the time I arrived at The Plant in heavily Latino Van Nuys (the curious title of this power mall built on the site of an old Chevy factory commemorates the days when cars and planes, not just movies, were manufactured in the San Fernando Valley), the 9:40 pm Saturday night show had sold out.

So, I drove south to the cinephiles` latest venue, the Arclight on tony Ventura Blvd. for the 10:30 show, which turned out to be almost empty. Apparently, if the residents of the Hollywood Hills were really all that interested in hearing about the lives of illegal aliens, they wouldn`t pay $12.75 to see "Under the Same Moon," they`d just strike up a conversation with their servants. Judging from the film`s maid`s-eye view of Los Angeles`s Anglo elite as stuck-up and cold-blooded, however, they aren`t.

Not surprisingly, "Under the Same Moon" works better as a floor wax than as a dessert topping. Its cast of telenovela stars delivers melodramatic telenovela-quality performances, and the screenplay is unsophisticated.

One important point that "Under the Same Moon" drives home to Americans who assume that everybody must long to live in America is that millions of Mexican immigrants dream constantly about going home.

It`s not just that Mexico isn`t really that poor anymore (life expectancy there is now 75.6 years, compared to 78.0 here). To Latin Americans from small colonial towns, where social life centers organically around the plaza, California cities, with no focal points but endless stripmalls, seem dishearteningly featureless. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: "There is no there there."

Thus, when the child finally arrives in East L.A. knowing only that his mother will try to call him the next morning from a street corner that has a laundromat, pizza parlor, and mural, he begins searching, only to discover, nightmarishly, that every corner looks like that.

In contrast, I once had to arrange to meet a friend in a week`s time in the fount of Latin culture, Rome, a city neither of us had ever visited before. We eventually agreed that we would get together at the Egyptian obelisk in Bernini`s great piazza in front of St. Peter`s. Now, there is most definitely a there there.

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements.