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Sundance Review: Bodily Deprivation For Justice In the Spiritually Charged ‘Cesar’s Last Fast’

Sundance Review: Bodily Deprivation For Justice In the Spiritually Charged 'Cesar's Last Fast'

Leader of the most vulnerable sector of American workers, Cesar Chavez was a relentless activist whose pioneering advocacy earned him a place among the great figures in world history. His battle against the tyrannical wealthy growers to better the conditions of thousands of Mexican Americans farm workers is chronicled in Richard Ray Perez’s competent documentary “Cesar’s Last Fast.”

Intercutting images from the 36 days of his final and most debilitating water-only fast with the origin story of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), Perez attempts to demystify Chavez’s motivation and unshakable stance. Constructing a picture of the iconic man by relying on the archival footage and first-hand accounts of Chavez’s struggle from those closer to him, proves to be an effective strategy.

Starting in the early sixties, Chavez felt compelled to do something about the savage conditions imposed on the farm workers and the emergence of numerous cancer cases among their children due to the use of pesticides. In 1962, alongside the similarly driven activist Dolores Huerta, Chavez founded the NFWA, which would eventually become an influential organization in the battle to defend the rights of those previously living in the shadows.

First urging the grape pickers to join him and then ferociously expanding into other farms, Chavez’s movement grew at an accelerated pace. “Huelga,” the Spanish word for strike, became the chant among those afflicted by a system that saw them simply as minor pieces in their multi-billion operations. As the film details his youth spent as a field laborer, helping his parents pick fruit during his formative years, Perez makes evident the deeply personal nature of Chavez’s mission. 

In the second half of the documentary, which focuses on the 1988 fast, a heavily religious tone is used to explore Chavez’s decision to deprive himself of food as an act of penance. As mentioned by multiple people around him, including his son Paul Chavez, the humble leader thought he hadn’t done enough to stop the spraying of toxic chemicals harming the workers’ families. At 61, he felt the need to put his own life at risk as his last resort to influence political action.

Throughout his spiritually captivating journey, Cesar’s presence is portrayed as almost divine. His persuasive convictions drew the masses to his cause and combined religious faith with political endeavors. Marches, boycotts, protests, and constant praying marked his ritualistic approach to keeping the fight alive. Moving and certainly thought provoking, the film’s portrait of his undeterred strength was most noticeable in the images of a pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento, where his followers displayed an inspiring unity that emanated from their trust in him.

Chavez himself was an admirer of others, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, who like him saw potential in non-violent activism. Unsurprisingly, other influential personalities of the time joined the Mexican American hero in his quest: Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Kennedy family, and actor Martin Sheen were among those who supported him to the last moments of his generous life. In one particularly emotional moment, the present day Sheen appears profoundly affected when confronted with the memories of Cesar’s weakened body. 

One of Perez’s greatest choices is the use of several interviews with Chavez himself, giving him the chance to tell his own story rebuilt from the past. Fragmented, yet highly powerful, these segments collected from television broadcasts and various sources show Chavez in his leadership role and exemplify his unpretentious magnetism. Selfless and completely unbothered by the extreme sacrifice he was making, Chavez’s strong personality transcends the limitations of the film.

Less impressive is the fact that the filmmaker offers nothing new about the man behind the activism. Little is mentioned about his life outside the movement other than his religious devotion. But the film successfully conveys that Chavez’s goal was so crucial and deeply rooted in his character that he was willing to die for it.

Decades after his efforts gave workers the right to bargain and to have a union to protect their interests, the poorest are still oppressed by the voracious quality of the farming business. Jobs that require extreme physical labor are still remunerated with minimal or non-existent benefits, and the used of pesticides has not been discontinued. Touching, insightful, and extremely well crafted, Richard Ray Perez’s work shows above all an admiration for a man whose life wasn’t entirely his but of his people.

Criticwire Grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? The film has been picked up as part of a deal between Participant Media and Univision to air on their respective channels. A theatrical release seems unlikely, but the broadcast is likely to generate decent ratings based on existing interest in Chavez.

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