Forgotten Gem: Sayles’ Casa de los Babys has something to show

Casa de los Babys

Casa de los Babys – 2003

Written and Directed by John Sayles
Starring Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gray Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Susan Lynch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rita Moreno, Martha Higareda, Vanessa Martinez

There is a point in Casa de los Babys that is startlingly different than most anything else that he has portrayed before.  A somewhat muted version of the neon lighted street at night, complete with some loud music.  It’s like that scene in so many lesser works where we get to see the Vegas strip in all of its glory at night, only this time its a coastal town in an unnamed Central / South American country.  Normally this scene would lead to a wild night.  In true Sayles form, though, it leads to 4 U.S. women (Lynch, Harden, Hannah, Gyllenhaal) going out for a steak dinner, and no more.  Well, actually, in a bold move, Gyllenhaal did announce she was going to foot the bill.  Back at the hotel, the remaining two visitors decide to order empanadas through room service.

Life on the beach with nowhere to go
Life on the beach with nowhere to go

The women are not vacationing together by choice.  Instead, they are in country hoping to adopt some of the children born to young and struggling citizens of the country, some of whom work in the service of those very people.  In true Sayles the story extends beyond the women on the poster.  In the tradition of Altman, he delves through the lives of many people.  His lens has no judgement, it just takes what it sees and delivers it to the viewer.

3rd Generation single mother
3rd Generation single mother

Unlike Altman, much of the story is told through the eyes of the people you don’t see on the cover.  In this case we see many of the natives, the owner of the hotel, (Moreno), her worthless son who tied into politics of rebellion, a maid (Martinez) who gave away her own child years ago so she could continue caring for her younger siblings, and a little homeless boy who spends his days wandering with others about town, a man who acts as an honest tour guide with the visitors who dreams to go to Philadelphia, a local girl who is the third in three generations to get pregnant out-of-wedlock, and her Lothario, a suave young man who works at the hotel restaurant.

The tapestry of the town is so complete, it is possible to come away with myriad viewpoints with every showing.  Most of all is the feeling that you have been immersed in a culture that produces children that cannot be supported, and now has a cottage industry tied to the people who come into the town to take those children away.  Most of them, that is.  One never could imagine how completely they could understand something so intimately and so helplessly removed from it at the same time.

Martinez gives the most riveting performance as Asunción
Martinez gives the most riveting performance as Asunción

One of the most effective scenes in the film finds the maid, named Asunción, watching children at the Catholic academy from the room she is cleaning.  Showing no more than her eyes and the object of her gaze, a little girl standing alone amidst a bunch of other children playing at recess.  Gradually, Asunción’s eyes become filled with tears.  Wordlessly, Sayles shows us the heart of this beautiful, simple woman, whose name is representative of the virgin mother of the savior being bound for heaven.  She is a mother, too, we can tell, and she is doomed to a life of abstinence.  Worse for her, though, as we find out later, is that she can only imagine that her child is happy, wherever it is.  The film is worth the money for this storyline alone, especially after her conversation with Lynch’s Eileen.

Understanding everything, though not one word...
Understanding everything, though not one word…

If there is one male writer/director that I want my children to absorb as completely as possible, it would be the works of John Sayles.  His work is never simple, and although often much quieter than the neon scene described above.  The fact that Sayles would make a film about a coven of prospective mothers surrounded and served by the birth mothers with no hint of irony or pushy sentiment, yet our hearts feel the swell of emotions that any human in those situations would shows the true talent of this gifted storyteller.  He does not tell stories.  He shows them.

(**** out of *****)

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2 thoughts on “Forgotten Gem: Sayles’ Casa de los Babys has something to show

    1. I am on a John Sayles kick right now. Expect a few more in the coming weeks. I hope to even cover his classics. Thanks for reading, Vinnie.

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