Cesar Chavez: Berlin Review

The famed Latino American labor leader gets routine treatment in this inert biopic.

Diego Luna’s second narrative feature as director stars Michael Pena as the activist whose struggle brought dignity to farm workers and paved the way for the Fair Food Movement.

Diego Luna’s heartfelt biographical drama, Cesar Chavez, chronicles the five-year struggle of the United Farm Workers co-founder in the 1960s to get California grape growers to the negotiating table to hammer out fair wages and better conditions for exploited field laborers. It’s a stirring story of a real-life fight for social justice, and clearly a passion project for the Mexican actor-turned-director. But while the film’s old-fashioned virtues and the integrity of its subject matter give it some traction, pedestrian handling, a lumpy script and some significant miscasting mean it only occasionally summons the dramatic power to match the events it depicts.

Following its Berlin bow, Pantelion Film (the joint venture between Lionsgate and Televisa) will release the film March 28 in conjunction with producing company Participant Media. The English- and Spanish-language feature will no doubt be marketed toward Hispanic communities and labor groups for whom Chavez’s name carries historical significance. However, while that might yield a brief theatrical life, the VOD and cable route appears more viable.

Martin Ritt’s 1979 drama about the unionization of a textile mill, Norma Rae, is an obvious screen forebear here, but the film also owes something to the tradition of Hollywood agricultural dramas of the mid-‘80s, such as Places in the Heart, Country and The River. Those films dealt with the battles of white American families to hang onto their farms through difficult times, while this one focuses on the powerful agricultural producers who rode roughshod over migrant workers, with the full endorsement of California Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon.

Chavez’s later life, in particular his widely publicized 1988 hunger strike to protest the use of cancer-causing pesticides on grape crops, was the subject of the feature documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, which premiered last month at Sundance. This poorly organized screenplay by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Timothy J. Sexton (a co-writer of Alfonso Cuaron’s remarkable Children of Men) concentrates on his earlier years.

Having gained experience in labor issues with the Latino civil rights group Community Service Organization, Cesar (Michael Pena) returns in 1962 to Central California, where he had worked in the fields from age 11 after his family lost their Arizona ranch in the Depression. Together with Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) he founds what is to become the UFW, first joining Filipino-American farm workers in their strike against the Delano grape growers, and then leading a historic march to Sacramento for the same cause. They also instigate a boycott of table grapes that attracts national attention, receiving political support from Robert F. Kennedy.

In much the same way Chavez sent activists out to tell real stories of injustice that would put a human face on their struggle, the screenwriters attempt to get a personal handle on their subject. Together with his feisty wife Helen (America Ferrera), Cesar gets out in the fields to gather information and muster support. In the face of unyielding resistance from the growers, victimization from police and unrest from within the burgeoning workers movement, Cesar’s focus is entirely on the fight, to the exclusion of his large family. His relationship with his eldest son, in particular, suffers, though this conflict never acquires much urgency. He also puts his own health at risk by fasting for 25 days in a bid to keep the clash against grape producers nonviolent.

This is a considerably more ambitious undertaking than Luna’s 2010 directing debut, the family drama Abel, but he lacks the command to bring much sweep or momentum to the account. He gets no help from a choppy screenplay that lurches through intimate scenes, agitated meetings and violent clashes with the same by-the-numbers approach, never solidifying the narrative arc or pausing long enough for character development.

This is a problem especially with Cesar, and Pena fails to make much of an impression in the saintly role. While the actor has shown that he can work well in the right part (the ill-fated cop in End of Watch, or the fake Arab investor in American Hustle, for instance), he remains a stolid presence here. He spouts sound bites rather than creating a shaded portrait of someone we have to assume was a deeply impassioned and by most accounts spiritual man. He simply doesn’t come across as a sufficiently charismatic or persuasive leader to galvanize vast numbers of frightened workers to demand their rights.

Dawson has nothing to play beyond standing around looking concerned and combative. Only Ferrera comes close to sketching a real character as self-possessed Helen, who is supportive of her husband’s endeavors but also forthright about her own views on how the struggle should proceed.

There’s not a lot of subtlety on the bad-guy side. Michael Cudlitz seems a poor fit for the racist Delano sheriff, while John Malkovich (who’s also a producer) sleepwalks through the movie as the snakiest of the grape growers, who wants to dictate terms rather than negotiate. He plays a sneering man of no conscience that we’ve seen countless times from him before. Gabriel Mann gives a duplicate junior version as his over-educated son, anxious for his father’s withheld approval.

Technically, the film is solid if unremarkable and somewhat underpopulated, though it integrates archive footage and photographic material to good effect. Aside from some truly terrible wigs (notably Malkovich’s and Wes Bentley’s as Cesar’s hippie lawyer), the ‘60s production and costume design are efficient, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak lends a nice grainy period look to the dirt roads and farmland settings. The photographs of Dorothea Lange appear to have been an inspiration in shots of workers’ tired, weather-beaten faces. Michael Brook’s score supplies a hint of emotional texture, something otherwise largely absent from a drama in which even the breakthroughs and hard-won victories feel curiously perfunctory.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)

Opens: Friday, March 28 (Pantelion Films/Participant Media)

Production companies: Canana, in association with Participant Media, Image Nation, Dream Management & Entertainment, Mr. Mudd

Cast: Michael Pena, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, Jacob Vargas, Yancey Arias, Wes Bentley, Mark Moses, John Ortiz, Gabriel Mann, Eli Vargas, Michael Cudlitz, Darion Basco, Noe Hernandez, Hector Suarez, Jack Holmes, Julian Sands

Director: Diego Luna

Screenwriters: Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton; story by Pearson

Producers: Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, Lawrence Meli, Keir Pearson

Executive producers: Emilio Azcarraga Jean, Hai Saban, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Gael Garcia Bernal, Julian Levin, Rebecca O’Brien

Director of photography: Enrique Chediak

Production designer: Ivonne Fuentes

Music: Michael Brook

Costume designer: Mariestela Fernandez

Editors: Miguel Schverdfinger, Douglas Crise

No rating, 101 minutes