'La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

La Madrina
Courtesy Djali Rancher Productions and Public Arts Films
A lively portrait of a woman who's lived several lifetimes' worth.

Raquel Cepeda profiles a Bronx gang member turned community activist in this decades-spanning documentary.

In her 60-some years on Earth, Lorine Padilla has seen, done and endured enough to fill several lifetimes. A middle-school dropout who spent her formative years seeing ghosts in the funeral parlor across the street from her East Harlem home, Padilla grew up to be, by turns, the first lady of the Savage Skulls gang, the homeless single mother of a baby she could only afford to feed water and sugar for a harrowing three days, a Santeria advisor, a social worker and a community activist hoping that the decades she’s given to the Bronx won’t have been all in vain. “We’re gonna become Brooklyn,” she sighs, looking down at the rapidly gentrifying borough from her apartment balcony.

Director Raquel Cepeda (Some Girls, Bling: A Planet Rock) pays tribute to the extraordinary life that the now-grandmother has led (and continues to lead) with the biographical documentary La Madrina: The Savage Life of Lorine Padilla. In many ways, Padilla is an ideal subject: open, warm and fully aware that there’s so much to learn from her life. She’s a witness to a bygone era, as well as a fighter for a better tomorrow.

Nearly as remarkable is the documentary’s surprising professional footage of Padilla as a beautiful young woman, seemingly just a few years into adulthood. Padilla was featured in 1993’s Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, a documentary by Henry Chalfant and Rita Fecher about gang life in the Bronx that was shot over three decades, and some of the outtakes for that earlier film are included in this one. (Chalfant serves as an executive producer for La Madrina.)

Cepeda films her subject in intimate conversations — tableside reminiscences with lifelong friends who seem to have survived just as much as Padilla has, one-on-one discussions with family members and lawmakers, face-the-camera recollections of her teenage self-harm or her difficult relationship with her mother. (“My mom always told me, ‘You’re gonna be a bitch,’” she recalls, “‘because it was a bitch giving birth to you.’”) By the time Padilla gets to her hospital stay and near-death experience at age 12 or 13 from rheumatic heart disease, it’s nearly an afterthought. Escaping death isn’t even the point of her story — it’s recognizing in statue form the saint whose apparition told her she’d live through the window of a botánica some days later.

Padilla relays in her smoker’s husk the shocking elements of her biography with a no-nonsense succinctness; she doesn’t draw out the tension or underscore dramatic details, though she clearly relishes a perfected turn of phrase. I kept wishing she (or the editing) would slow down and dive into the details of each anecdote, but I couldn’t help admiring her business-like lack of self-pity, either. The documentary’s most engaging scenes find her chatting with her girlfriends in Spanglish, the seeming casualness of their tone belying the terror of their experiences. One woman harks back to the time she was kidnapped, beaten and sexually assaulted by a gang as a result of mistaken identity; another marvels that she became a teacher. In each of these women’s lives, you can sense there was a moment when they resolved to survive.

For Padilla, that moment of clarity may have arrived well after marrying her first husband, Felipe “Blackie” Mercado, a onetime leader of the Savage Skulls whom she met as an inmate while visiting her brother in prison. Mercado punished his crew for physically abusing their partners, but he apparently had no qualms about giving his wife regular black eyes. The only time when Padilla loses the equanimity she seems to have spent decades developing is remembering the time Mercado broke her knee during a beating, forcing her to crawl around her own house to feed her baby. “He left,” finally, when her youngest was not yet two, “and my life began.”

Through Padilla’s biography, Cepeda attempts to provide a fuller picture of the complicated role that women played in gangs of yore. That picture is one of both caretaking and calculated aggression, since it was less likely that their verbal attacks against a rival gang (or the cops) would be met with the kind of violence routinely doled out to their male counterparts. Padilla instinctively balked at the misogyny of the Savage Skulls, but she also admits to contributing to the spate of apartment arsons in the Bronx during the ‘70s — a landlord-driven phenomenon in which property owners found it more profitable to set their buildings on fire and collect the insurance money than retrieve rent on unwanted or dilapidated housing stock. Landlords sometimes hired local gangs to push out the remaining tenants before an arson job. “Did we know we were destroying our community?” she sighs. “No.”

La Madrina might have benefited from some more context about both the Bronx street gangs of some of New York's worst decades and how the borough has changed since. But it’s also understandable that Cepeda wanted to give Padilla as much of the spotlight as possible. The documentary ends with the activist's efforts to pass a state law mandating extra jail time to shooters — possibly gangsters — who take aim near schools and playgrounds, like the one who wounded her young grandson with a bullet (he thankfully survives). Perhaps Padilla’s tough-on-crime campaign is ironic, given her past. But it certainly isn’t surprising: She’s dedicated her entire existence to protecting her own.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production companies: Djali Rancher Productions, Public Art Films
Director: Raquel Cepeda
Producer: Raquel Cepeda
Executive producers: Henry Chalfant, Sacha Jenkins
Director of photography: Alejandra Araujo, Ethan Mills
Editor: Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez
Composer: Bobby Sanabria

82 minutes