If you’ve been reading Remezcla recently, you know that we’ve been interested in Diego Luna’s upcoming passion project, Cesar Chávez. Very interested. For a long time. And that’s why we’re a little disappointed to hear the early returns from its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The biopic is Diego Luna’s third film as a director but the first one in English and stars Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, and America Ferrera.
To summarize: the critics are saying the film is slow, and is more hagiography than character study.
The clear, worthy aim of the film is to reeducate a public who may only remember Chavez from a small section in a certain chapter of their high school history books, if that. And Luna’s own admiration for the subject cannot be questioned. But we’re informed that the film was written in concert with Chavez’s family (he himself died in 1993) and the final product does bear the hallmarks of an overly deferential memorialization, or perhaps, since we really do not believe there was an active suppression of any potentially salacious details, it’s more that those close to Chavez want to spread awareness of his legacy to the world while keeping the memory of the man for themselves. Which is understandable, and maybe even laudable, but it just doesn’t make for particularly emotive filmmaking.
From Hollywood Reporter:
[Diego Luna] gets no help from a choppy screenplay that lurches through intimate scenes, agitated meetings and violent clashes with the same by-the-numbers approach, never solidifying the narrative arc or pausing long enough for character development. This is a problem especially with Cesar, and Pena fails to make much of an impression in the saintly role. While the actor has shown that he can work well in the right part (the ill-fated cop in End of Watch, or the fake Arab investor in American Hustle, for instance), he remains a stolid presence here. He spouts sound bites rather than creating a shaded portrait of someone we have to assume was a deeply impassioned and by most accounts spiritual man. He simply doesn’t come across as a sufficiently charismatic or persuasive leader to galvanize vast numbers of frightened workers to demand their rights.
A passion project about a passionate man takes surprisingly flat form in “Cesar Chavez,” demonstrating that however effective the tactic may be in real life, starving oneself for social justice doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling screen entertainment — but then, preaching the virtues of nonviolence has never been cinema’s strong suit. Recognizing that Chavez’s victory in earning equal rights for migrant workers remains scandalously under-taught in classrooms, director Diego Luna responds with a biopic that feels more polite than political, counting on the worthiness of his subject and the participation of a well-meaning ensemble to galvanize mostly Latino auds.
So it sounds like Cesar Chávez falls down where a lot of biopics fall down: the need to tell the story of all the events of its subject’s life mean the subject himself gets short-changed as a character. But who knows? I’ve been known to remain optimistic about doomed films before, and I’m all for more Latino biopics.
I’ll be on line to see Cesar Chávez when it hits theaters in March. How about you?