A good boxer knows how to fight in a ring, but it doesn’t mean that he can face life in the same successful way. Frank Díaz (John Leguizamo), protagonist of Salvatore Stabile’s Where God Left His Shoes, is one of those ex-boxers struggling to survive outside the ring. When he, his wife Ángela (Leonor Varela), and his two kids, Justin (David Castro) and Christina (Samantha Rose), receive an eviction notice, they have no choice but to move into a homeless shelter. Two months later Christmas Eve brings them a gift — a new apartment in a housing project. However, Frank must be employed to qualify. Before closing the case, a State employee gives Frank extra time — until the end of the day. It’s early in the cold morning, and the family is ready to move from the shelter, so Frank takes his ten-year-old stepson Justin to the city to help him find a job. This journey is about a family that tries to overcome the worst experiences through humor, patience, and love.
In one of the last nights in their apartment, the light cuts off and Christina gets scared. Frank tries to make her laugh and forget about the problems playing a game: The one who scores a piece of food in other’s mouth wins. There is no money on the table, only care and consideration. While the city prepares for Christmas the family must beg in the streets, but they aren’t alone. This story opens our eyes to the sub-world of heart-breaking homeless shelters, showing the main holiday season as the busiest time.
The relationship between Frank and Justin moves in crescendo. Sometimes they seem to be brothers, and that’s exactly what works for Justin: They have a special language. Although Frank is unemployed, not educated, and probably not a good role model, there is something that makes Justin feels secure with him. The bureaucracy and eternal red tape make them roam the city of qualifications and barriers, but when everything is over and there is no shame left to lose, Justin serves as Frank’s inspiration to not give up. Fear is the worst weapon in the world. “Do you love me?”, asks Justin to Frank, in one moving and wonderfully directed scene. They start playing at boxing, but suddenly the game is mixed with feelings of impotence by both.
John Leguizamo delivers a great performance yet again, after rich and difficult roles in Moulin Rouge, Summer of Sam, and many others. Young David Castro digs into his role with the experience of an adult, as he did in Palindromes and A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. Leonor Varela’s international experience in Innocent Voices and Shut Up among a few U.S. features adds cohesion to this Latino family trying to live with pride while bouncing between extremes, from a fancy restaurant to an improvised shelter in the subway.
Like most true indies, this Vulcan Productions film had to squeeze money out of many sources to get made. It relied on the NY City and State tax incentive program — a 15-percent rebate for being “Made in New York.” According to the production notes, because a majority of the cast is either Latino or African-American, the Screen Actor’s Guild raised the budget cut-off that qualifies a production for lower-budget agreements. And many New York organizations, including Trinity Church, Toys ‘R’ Us, contributed to the film because of the importance of its subject. Some famous locations in the city reduced their fees for this film. A housing project in the Bronx even provided a real, vacated place, after a non-payment of $245 in rent, to be used as the Díaz family’s apartment.
Where God Left His Shoes is Stabile’s second feature. Many years passed after he made Gravesend in 1997, and much water had to flow under the bridge until he felt mature enough to work on this kind of project. In recent years he has written and produced a few TV episodes for The Sopranos and FDNY, among others. Having the enormous responsibility of directing Leguizamo and catching the essence of crowded New York streets during Christmas, Stabile shot in more than fifty locations in 25 days with Super 16mm, including in the busiest places in the city — Times Square, Grand Central, and Rockefeller Center — during peak season days.
Croatian cinematographer Vanja Cernjul and prolific music composer Jeff Beal get into the soul of the city and the soul of the family in this story about poverty, a hidden abusive history, indifference, and hard times. As core characteristics of this independent film they bring a precious moral: If people have each other, they can survive everything, and they probably will. “This is not where God left his shoes… but it’ll do”, says Frank when he sees the apartment. Those divine shoes may not rest in the apartment, but they remain in the hearts of los Díaz — and of Stabile’s team: While they were filming the crew did a clothing, food, toy, and money drive for several homeless shelters, and the earnings from the film will go in part to more donations.
A good boxer knows how to fight in a ring. A good father knows how to teach his kids and how to learn from them. A good son knows how to accept a father beyond his mistakes. A good director knows when he is ready to make a challenging film. All of them have something in common: They also know where the shoes are.
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