A lot of Latin American countries are considered “paradise:” gorgeous beaches, exquisite cuisines, kind people, cheap clothes, sporting events that become passionate social phenomena, historical architecture, and landscapes that are devotion of National Geographic photographers. Nevertheless, every year millions of Latin Americans believe the paradise is to the north, often embarking in humiliating and risky experiences, far away from their families, friends, language and customs.
Paraiso Travel is Colombian director Simon Brand’s second feature film after Unknown (2006) which starred James Caviezel. Written by Jorge Franco and Juan Manuel Rendón, and based on “Paraiso Travel”, a novel by Franco, it tells the story of manipulative and ambitious Reina (Angélica Blandón) and lovesick Marlon (Aldemar Correa), two teenagers from Medellín who travel illegally to New York looking for a better life. Reina wants to get out of Medellín and her conservative father, and Marlon, the movie’s “hero”…well, he comes from a good and loving family but he just wants to sleep with Reina and so follows her lead. So it is a bit preposterous that these two students steal their way to get $3,000 to buy a “non-guaranteed” ticket to freedom through Paraiso Travel Agency. Their naïve intents are soon crushed as they make the dangerous journey to Guatemala, Mexico and finally through the US border and New York, but soon after the first day, Marlon gets lost. No money, no friends, no family, no Reina… no English.
“New York is a monster to tame”, tells Giovanny (Pedro Capó, one of the best performers in the film) to Marlon while contemplating the Manhattan skyline on a break from work at Mi Tierra Colombiana restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. Marlon is rescued by fellow Colombian immigrants and he meets generous and affable Latinos such as Giovanny, Milagros (superstar Ana de La Reguera in a disappointing role), a Mexican aspiring salsa singer who makes a living selling CDs outside the restaurant and Roger (John Leguizamo,) his sadomasochist (literally) but kind (and of course being Leguizamo, funny) landlord. Everyone takes Marlon’s hand to make him feel at home and forget about his quest to find Reina. “In this country you have to wait in line for everything…even to be happy” musters Giovanny, who serves as the Voice of Reason throughout the film.
Immigration to the U.S., beyond its legal/illegal condition is one of the hottest and most complex issues in the current political campaigns. It’s also a very important issue to address in a more serious way in Latin American countries, where citizens live immersed in false promises, corruption and poverty. But no matter how huge is the topic of massive Latin American migration to the U.S., lets not forget about the basic premise of the film: it’s a love story. No matter how many friends Marlon makes or Milagros’ seductive hip swivels, he is miserable because in the middle of Queens, he can’t find his Reina. Simon Brand tried to be as faithful as possible to Franco’s novel, and in some way it turns the whole migration discussion into an entertaining soap opera adapted to the big screen: it’s humorous, romantic, dramatic, sexy and has lots of topless shots. Paraiso Travel is a high-quality production (it cost almost $5 million), and drew one of the biggest box offices in Colombia’s history (no doubt it can have the same effect in many Latin American countries.) Thousands, if not millions of spectators will feel identified when a crying Marlon calls his mother asking for her daily blessing. Or will know what it feels like when he discovers commodities that don’t exist in our yet developing countries (like a handicapped-ready bathroom that works), and all the suffering and home-away-from home situations immigrants must face in a new country.
That said, even if the Latin American immigration in this country is a necessary and important topic on screen, don’t expect exceptional acting. Even Leguizamo, who also produced the film and is one of the best Latino actors in the U.S. along with Benicio del Toro, leaves us wishing his character were more developed. And yes, you must deal with some classic novelas stereotypes, including too much of plot explanation and an over-the-top ending. “I wanted to make a film that makes Latin Americans think twice about traveling to the U.S. illegally,” Simon Brand told me during a meet and greet with the press at the Tribeca Film Festival, “but one that also makes Americans think twice about how these people are treated once they get here.” Simon’s intentions go right to the point: his honest adaptation definitely brings new questions to a very relevant issue.