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'The Milagro Beanfield War' (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1988
Whether it's Mr. Smith or Norma Rae or Billy Jack, Americans like their heroes homespun -- ordinary people who take on the fat cats, and win by persuading their fellows to join the cause. "The Milagro Beanfield War," Robert Redford's lyrical second film, follows the fail-safe formula, but there's something new under the New Mexico sun: Mr. Smith is Chicano.
Based on John Nichols' novel, the lovely "Milagro" tells the story of Joe Mondragon, a handyman who breaks an unjust law by irrigating his land with water earmarked for a major developer. The simple act ultimately unifies the people of Milagro into an army fighting to preserve the valley and an eccentric way of life. The pork-barrelers and robber barons fight back with everything they've got. But Joe will not be broken.
Chick Vennera has this central role, but "Milagro" is essentially an ensemble comedy-drama with a uniformly excellent cast. Yet the movie coalesces around 74-year-old Carlos Riquelme, a Mexican actor making his enchanting English-language debut. He plays the village elder Amarante, and he's also the movie's magic, a feisty old-timer on intimate terms with saints and angels.
Frank Capra knew what a guardian angel could do to spice up a salute to the common man. But it's the Latin authors, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose written worlds truly teem with luxuriant mysticism. "Milagro" is drawn from both traditions, a quirky blend of populism and magic realism. It is a grass roots western with real spirit -- in the form of Coyote (Roberto Carricart), an angel who dresses like Pancho Villa. "People have forgotten how to talk to angels," worries Amarante, the only one who can see Coyote. Others hear his faint concertina when his spirit is about. Like the people of Anatevka with their fiddler, the people of Milagro hear hope.
Milagro means miracle in Spanish, but the village doesn't seem to have a prayer. Most everyone in the valley has given up, or at least isn't paying attention to the land-grabbing developers -- except for the bristling mechanic (Sonia Braga) who owns Ruby's Body Shop and Pipe Queen. She suspects that the state government is in league with a builder (Richard Bradford), and she tries without success to mobilize her neighbors. As usual, the villains overplay their hand: An undercover agent (Christopher Walken) comes after Joe, with a rifle over his shoulder and a tight smile.
The bad guys can no more be mistaken for warm-blooded beings than can their giant tractors tearing the trees from Mother Earth. His intention obvious, Redford cuts from the rape of the land to the tranquility of Joe's shimmering beanfield. The director turns conservationist, and his ode becomes an indictment.
The technique gets Redford's point across, but it is clumsy in contrast to the savory back-fence humor of Milagro. It's an archetypal small town, with mesquite instead of maples, adobe bricks instead of white picket fences. But like many small towns, Milagro is dying. As Ruby wonders, "What good is a home town if everyone you know is gone?"
Ruby, Joe and company are not the people of "El Norte," those Central American e'migre's who were defeated and exploited by the Yankees. These folks are Yankees themselves. Though they talk about them and us, Anglos and Chicanos, Redford finds a melting pot under the arid blue of the Southwestern sky.
Corny, you bet. But that's to be admired in an old war horse on the last frontier.
"The Milagro Beanfield War" and is rated R for profanity.
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