Written & directed by Peter Bratt/starring Benjamin Bratt
Some ten years ago at UCLA I heard Raymund Paredes, Ph.D., state, "The universal lies in the particular." His context was multicultural literature and how the stories of lives far beyond our own can illuminate your very situation or mine. I've since adopted his observation and it lives with me daily in my classroom. It also lives in the excellent independent film, "La Mission."
Peter and Benjamin Bratt have collaborated on a story set in their hometown of San Francisco in its Mission District. The story line: bus driver-recovering alcoholic-single dad Che Rivera abruptly learns that his cherished son Jesse is gay. Che's troubled ability to cope with this shock and his threads of connection to others lattice the plot. The "particular" of the film is its Latino community life. The universal is its painstaking process of sloughing off a father's angry, deflective layers of hurt in order to reveal his tender core, his corazon, for his beloved boy. The brothers Bratt coax Che's transformation without ever slipping into the maudlin. They recreate a milieu of working-class car aficionados, neighborhood tensions of gentrification and homosexuality, and urban violence so authoritatively that all of us viewers can understand Che's anguish.
"La Mission" takes a cue from opera when it uses signature music to identify each major character. Watch for that touch. Two scenes that employ music are among my favorites. In the first, for about 90 seconds we see Che ironing his clothes for an evening out. Now I admit to having spent many a Saturday night ironing to Art Laboe's Killer Oldies, but Che vaults ironing up to Olympic stature in this scene. How he summons perfection from an iron deserves major props. The other exemplary scene is the lowrider outing set to "Stop, Look, Listen," the magnificent 1971 Philly Soul cut. As far as I am concerned, this song is the apex of the Stylistics' catalogue; the pairing of this music with Che and Lena's date is sublime. It made me cry. It was that beautiful.
Another interesting motif is the presence of shrines. The Bratt brothers are ever mindful of both the leadership and confluence of indigenous and conquering peoples. The opening montage of murals illustrates this tension from the get-go. Repeatedly we see Che pause at the shrine he keeps of Our Lady Guadalupe and her red roses. Meanwhile, his neighbor Lena maintains her own shrine to feminine power with a goddess from India. Much later at a Dia de los Muertos memorial, Che finally experiences the integration that has eluded him. What are shrines but memory made palpable? We can feel the ache in Che when he holds the photo of his late wife. The tattoos on his body, the image of his mother on his prized ride, the regular offering of groceries to his aged neighbor--Che is a memory-curator in his own particular world.
I hope "La Mission" will find a viewership in and beyond Los Angeles. I hope it reaches Phoenix, Tucson, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso, San Antonio. And it's an unusually potent film that deserves a rebirth once dvd time comes along.