John Sayles’s latest Casa de los Babys catalogs the emotional baggage of six would-be mothers stationed inside a South American hotel waiting for the processing of their adoption papers. What continues to distinguish Sayles from any other filmmaker working today is his impassioned concern for the lives of women and the culturally underprivileged, above and below the Equator. The past is less a threat in Casa de los Babys than it was in Sunshine State, but the film’s nameless South American pit stop brings to mind the same ambient, allegorical landscapes of Matewan devastated by the specters of imperialism. Think of the film’s microcosm as a world that lives and propagates beneath a microscope. Sayles merely offers us a glimpse of the chaos—he evokes culture shock by dropping into the lives of the film’s women with little-to-no introductions and pulls out before anything is ever resolved.
Sayles addresses the issue of poverty that devastates women in South American countries, but it’s the range of torment that haunts his white women that truly lingers in the mind. Skipper (Daryl Hannah) deflects the agony of three ill-fated pregnancies into a strict exercise regime. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden, vying for another Oscar) judges the culture and women around her with extreme prejudice but Sayles reveals a sad torment beneath the jagged Iago exterior. It’s assumed that Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) found solace in liquor when she couldn’t have a baby, just as the contrarian Leslie (Lili Taylor) is seemingly hellbent on redefining the nuclear family. If the older women have postponed motherhood and now find themselves racing against their biological clocks, the younger ones (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jennifer and Susan Lynch’s Eileen) lie cowering in corners convinced they’re inconsequential without children.
These women would scale the face of the earth to fill their maternal void and they claw at each other like rabid animals in order to justify why one is more entitled to an infant than the other. This gives way to ample cattiness throughout the film that’s simultaneously humorous and saddening. Via a series of repeated cutaways to the country’s street children (los olvidados), Sayles evokes the episodic structure of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by giving a face to a part of humanity that continues to fall through the cracks. But with so many characters airing out their emotional laundry, 95 minutes is nowhere near enough time for any of it to dry. Perhaps, though, that’s the point of this little curio: to drop six broken white women inside a hotel (here a kind of in utero docking point operated by the great Rita Moreno) and watch as they gestate the world around them.
By film’s end, Sayles likens the struggle of the film’s women to both a lottery and astrological fate. For a director whose voice is so typically and elaborately subtle, the literal-mindedness of the film’s final minutes, however genteel, is beneath him. Save for the film’s final haunting image, Casa de los Babys isn’t as audacious as Limbo or as consistently ripe with allegory as his brilliant Hombres Armados (Men With Guns). But if the film is less than the sum of its parts, you won’t find parts as delicate and devastating in any other film this year. Eileen and the young Asuncion (Vanessa Martinez, one of the most talented actresses of her generation) pour their souls out to each other in a scene that seemingly lasts the duration of the film itself. Neither woman understands the other’s language but both yearn to talk and listen to someone without prejudice. And in so doing they attempt to negotiate a rickety cultural bridge between two cultures whose treatment of women isn’t very different.