Whether by accident or, more likely by design, Demián Bichir is flipping the script on Mexican-American stories on the big screen. The Mexican-born actor, who holds dual citizenship and has been a vocal advocate for immigrants in the United States, is lending his voice to characters who deepen our understanding of the Latinx experience. That’s clearly on display in two new films screening at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, Un cuento de circo and a Love Song and Lowriders, both of which offer two distinct tales of border culture and represent complex narratives about immigrants.
Back in summer 2015 shortly after Trump had announced his candidacy, Bichir was attending Comic-Con to tease his role in Quentin Tarantino’s snowy Western, The Hateful Eight. When asked to respond to those now infamous comments about Mexicans being rapists and criminals, the actor was quick to point out he believed the real estate mogul was speaking out of ignorance. That all it showed was “how little he knows about our culture and everything Mexicans have done for this country, and continue to do.”
His projects since his Oscar-nominated role in A Better Life have further established the fact that he’s one of Mexico’s greatest working actors. He’s played a Chihuahua State police detective in The Bridge, an FBI agent in The Heat, a psychopath villain in Machete Kills, and a cartel member in Savages. There’s range in these roles and an attempt to do away with any desire for type-casting — which we here at Remezcla worried about when we looked at his post-nomination career. More importantly, they’ve also allowed him to take on more roles that explore the humanity that many people like Trump would easily dismiss.
Echoing its own bilingual title, his directorial debut Un cuento de circo and a Love Song, shuttles between Mexico and the U.S. quite seamlessly with characters speaking English or Spanish depending on the context. His character, Refugio (played as a younger man by his nephew, Jose Angel Bichir) grows up as part of a Mexican circus, begrudgingly performing as a clown before heading to the U.S. where he becomes a journalist. Bichir’s screenplay is mostly concerned with family ties on the one hand, and tragic love affairs on the other. But even as the intricate plot of the film (which ends up involving a failed ballerina, a strip bar owner, a tiger tamer, a Mexican cartel leader, and a lesbian couple) spins out of control, the most fascinating aspect of Bichir’s movie may well be its careful attention to his characters’ sense of cultural identity.
The woman Refugio falls for in his youth (played by Eva Longoria), for example, doesn’t like when she’s described as a gringa. “Soy Mexicana,” she states, though she was born across the border and struggles with her Spanish. She’s not embarrassed about that fact nor does she let it take away from her own identification with her Mexican heritage. Similarly, Refugio’s Spanish-language skills become something to be celebrated in New Orleans, where he’s told it’s very hard to find someone who speaks decent Spanish.
These are small moments that nevertheless round out the world Bichir is representing. It’s not surprising that the ultimate bad guy in the piece is the one guy (played by Jason Patric) who spouts racial epithets every which way. “Is it your dream to raise fifteen kids who eat beans?” he angrily asks his ex (played by Bichir’s wife, Stefanie Sherk) who’s now dating Refugio. Even amidst his melodramatic plot, this bilingual and bicultural film is committed to telling an engaging tale of complex individuals from across both sides of the border.
Sporting a bald head and a bushy ‘stache, Bichir is almost unrecognizable in Ricardo de Montreuil’s Lowriders, which serves as a vibrant intro to the changing scene in East Los Angeles. Bichir plays Miguel, a gruff and committed car mechanic who’s trying to keep his garage, Alvarez & Sons Motors, afloat. But his relationship with his sons, which include Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) who wants to be a graffiti artist, and Ghost (Theo Rossi), who’s just been released from prison, is anything but picture perfect. Still grieving over the loss of their mother and Miguel’s first wife, they don’t really know how to communicate, especially as Danny so clearly wants to pursue the type of artistic calling his father deems useless.
But the family drama at the heart of the movie (which, like Un cuento, co-stars Eva Longoria) wouldn’t be as engaging were it not such a colorful celebration of lowrider culture. There’s a beauty in how lovingly the film depicts the process of customizing these various cars, showing it to be an art in itself, especially once we see Danny put his artistic skills to work on hoods rather than walls.
Keenly attuned to the changing landscape of East LA, the drama also tackles what it means for would-be artists like Danny to mingle with the hipster population in increasingly gentrified spaces of what used to be working class Latino neighborhoods. This is exemplified through his relationship with Lorelai (Melissa Benoist), a young photographer who sees Danny’s potential but cannot help but end up framing his work and his life story in poorly stereotypical ways when introducing him to her art gallery friends. If there’s something to be learned from Montreuil’s film it’s that Mexican-American culture need not be sold through, or for, white audiences. It stands out and stands tall on its own.
A successful Mexican journalist working in New Orleans. A recovering alcoholic Chicano car mechanic in Los Angeles. These are not just examples of Bichir’s actorly range. They are also powerful portraits that prove that even as we bemoan the lack of meaty roles for Latino actors, Bichir is happy to pave his own way. We can only hope that his work in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien: Covenant opens up even greater opportunities for the talented actor.