“Silence has been destroyed, but also the idea that it’s important to learn how another person thinks, to enter the mind of another person,” said Gary Shteyngart in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine. “The whole idea of empathy is gone. We are now part of this giant machine where every second we have to take out a device and contribute our thoughts and opinions.” He’s exaggerating for effect, I suppose, and writers who are frustrated because they don’t have more readers aren’t exactly unbiased reporters of cultural decline. Why should expressing your opinion make you care less about what other people have to say? Isn’t it possible that oversharing is making us more sensitive to all the different perspectives out there?
I sure hope so, because Romántico just reminded me of one of the things I love about movies: A well-done character study can teach us a lot about how someone else thinks and experiences the world. And I’d hate to think that people wouldn’t be moved by this story, which outlines what may be the quintessential American experience of the 21st century while introducing us to a man I won’t soon forget.
Romántico starts out following two close friends from Salvatierra, Mexico, Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez and Arturo Arias. The two crossed over to the U.S. separately, each intent on earning money to send to the families they couldn’t support in Mexico. But when Carmelo found himself adrift in LA he joined Arturo in San Francisco, where the two formed a mariachi band, performing for tips in bars and restaurants in the city’s Mexican district. Filmmaker Mark Becker, who directed, co-produced, shot and edited the movie, first encountered them there and decided to make a 10-minute short about how they earned their living as mariachis. You can still see the outline of that movie in the first part of this one, which unfolds as a mildly interesting but unexceptional journalistic account of how the two got to this country and how they manage to earn enough—and scrimp enough (Carmelo appears to live in a storage closet, while Arturo shares an apartment with six other undocumented immigrants)—to send money back home.
Then Carmelo learns that his mother is near death and the story deepens and narrows, focusing in on him and his family. Carmelo’s home town is almost as welcome a sight to us as it is to him after his drab section of San Francisco, where Becker generally shoots him and Arturo in muddy darkness or rooms that are depressingly barren or cluttered. In contrast, most of the Mexican footage is shot in the daytime, the bright sunshine or overcast skies accentuating the warm colors of the town’s plaster walls. Even the cemetery Carmelo visits is striking to look at, dotted with hot pink and aqua memorials, and the wall in his modest laundry room is painted a luminous blue.
But the main source of warmth is Carmelo himself. Radiating unconditional love, he works tirelessly and without complaint to give his wife and daughters something better than the desperate poverty he grew up with. And he doesn’t stop just with adequate shelter and food and clothes, or with the education he never got as a kid; he also understands the need to feed the soul. His struggle to save enough to give his oldest daughter a “beautiful” quinceanera is one of the movie’s central dramas. It’s also the source of its most moving scene, in which Carmelo dances with his half-excited, half-disappointed daughter to a song about the beauty and impermanence of youth at the small family potluck that winds up being all he can afford.
Becker never dishonors Carmelo by asking us to pity him. Instead, we see his poverty as he does, as a fact of life he works hard to change but accepts when he must. (“We couldn’t pay enough so they didn’t treat her well,” he says with matter-of-fact dignity after his mother dies.) In the San Francisco segment, that philosophical acceptance is mostly what we see of him (“As we Mexicans say,” he says, “God makes me, and I make do.”) At home in Salvatierra, his empathy and kindness shine through, a lovely smile emerging that occasionally lights up his deeply creased face. Clear-eyed and generous-hearted, Carmelo sympathizes with the prostitutes he plays for in bars at the same time that he pledges to do everything he can to make sure his daughters never share their fate. He is also warmly understanding about Arturo’s drinking problem, never judging his friend for something he sees as being out of his control.
Carmelo’s sensitivity and humility is matched by Becker’s tactful approach to his subject, whom he observes and listens to without editorializing. His way of often introducing major developments obliquely, like when he reveals just minutes from the end of the film that Carmelo suffers from the diabetes that is killing his mother, also feels appropriate, rhyming with Carmelo’s graceful acceptance of whatever life doles out. The many songs sung in the movie, mostly by Carmelo and his band mates (he’s part of a larger mariachi group in Mexico), also amplify Carmelo’s approach to life. Like the movie itself, the music celebrates the longing and love, sadness and beauty that suffuse the lives of good men like Carmelo, men who work hard for everything they get in life and feel grateful for every morsel.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.