An intermittently compelling overview of a movement, but only a cursory portrait of a man, “Cesar Chavez,” directed by Diego Luna and premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, is a well-intentioned, respectable and respectful biopic. But the conservative format of the film, that never goes beyond the kind of paint-by-numbers approach that stultifies so many entries in this genre, was a disappointment, as Luna’s first directorial feature, the small-scale but affectingly odd “Abel” promised better things to come, and at the very least, showed that Luna had a knack for creating characters who were lovable as much for their flaws as for their strengths. But the Chavez we get here has no flaws, unless his choice to nobly sacrifice time with his family on the altar of a higher cause is a flaw. And of course it’s not. Chavez was a true hero, spearheading the campaign to extend union rights to the exploited migrant worker class in 1960s California, and from there to the whole nation. But without the context of his inner struggle, the personal dragons that he must have had to slay in order be the shining knight for an unrepresented minority, all we get is heroism, and heroism of itself does not make for a particularly interesting tale.
It’s also a factor of the slice of the story that the film chooses to tell. While we’re advocates of narrowing the focus of biopics rather than covering every significant incident in a subject’s life from cradle to grave, Luna chooses an entry point well after Chavez has already become an activist, with a scant line or two devoted to how he got there (in a kind of fake documentary segment at the start, to which the film never returns). And so we begin with his decision to uproot his family and move to California, the better to relate to the workers on the ground, which would make sense if the film’s remit were solely to cover the California campaign for migrant worker rights. But the title suggests otherwise, and we feel the lack of background in a kind of blankness around the character of Chavez, whom even the usually fantastic Michael Pena struggles to invest with any interiority—this is a superhero tale in which we do not know the origin story.
And so, Cesar Chavez packs his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and seven children off to Delano, California to live among the migrant workers who pick grapes for the county’s vineyards. Along with his similarly committed colleague Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), he agitates in the community, setting up a credit union and trying to educate the worker population as to the rights they should be claiming, eventually calling a strike. The strike, which lasts five years and includes a 300-mile march to Sacramento, is subsequently particularly targeted at one wine manufacturer (whose owner is played by Julian Sands—he’s had an odd career, hasn’t he?) and after they inevitably cave, the union focuses their attention on the film’s Big Bad viticulturist, Bogdnaovitch (John Malkovich). While Chavez battles internal divisions, especially on the point of non-violence which he passionately advocates and at one point embarks on a 25-day hunger strike to promote, his campaign becomes national news, sparking similar protests across the country, gaining Robert F. Kennedy’s vocal support, and eventually going international when Chavez travels to England to seek help in enforcing a consumer boycott on buying strike-breaking California grapes. The tireless efforts of his team (which includes Wes Bentley in a role as a hippie-ish lawyer that feels significantly reduced, or maybe piecemeal from the beginning) eventually bear fruit.
While the film never suggests that the road was easy, it does chart Chavez’s, and the movement’s, achievements as a fairly uninterrupted upward curve, as he responds to every new setback with steadfast grace and dogged perseverance. The problem is that broadening success and growing esteem is simply not a particularly interesting personal arc, unless we understand the toll it takes. Yet the film deals only in one tiny sliver of that—Chavez’s strained relationship with his eldest son who is bullied at school and is petulantly unhappy that his father’s time is so monopolized by the union. Everyone else, from his miraculously supportive and ballsy wife, to the ever-present Dolores, to his brother who is completely on the same page, and, aside from the occasional affectionate “you’re so stubborn” comment or joke about “you’re not going to stop eating again, are you?” we really don’t get any sense of the emotional stakes involved for Cesar himself. Occasional mentions of his own father’s shame at watching the family farm being bulldozed, or his time spent working the fields only serve to highlight just how little we otherwise know about what motivates him.
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. Luna, for his part seems content to add color around the edges as though he’s stared too long at the sun and can only manage a bleached-out white light where Chavez should be. We can’t be too hard on a film whose intentions are so noble and which does at least tell an important, underrepresented story. But nor can we get too enthusiastic about a biopic that underdelivers on precisely its raison d’etre: it’s a competent, unobjectionable history lesson but Cesar Chavez’ legacy needs a more inspired and inspiring telling if it’s to get the exposure this crusading figure deserves. [C]