Drawing narrative inspiration in large measure from Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), A Better Life revolves around undocumented Mexican immigrant Carlos Galindo’s hopes for a better future for his 14-year-old son, Luis, who was born in the U.S. Long since abandoned by their wife and mother, father and son live in a tenement shack in East Los Angeles. Carlos works seven days a week as a gardener; Luis goes to high school, except when he doesn’t, either playing hookey or having been suspended. Together, they bond as they search for Carlos’s truck, which he needs for work and has been stolen from him.
Directed by Chris Weitz, the film began as a story by Roger L. Simon that Eric Eason turned into a script. Eason wrote and directed the excellent Manito (2002), for which Bicycle Thieves also was a major influence. However, A Better Life, in cataloguing the hardships of undocumented immigrants, is vastly more sentimental than either Bicycle Thieves or Manito. At times, it plays like a father-son tearjerker as Carlos knocks his head and heart against the stone wall of his son’s diffidence, disrespect and all-round punkishness. Once upon a time, Joan Crawford might have played Carlos in drag.
Despite his surprise best actor Oscar nomination, Demián Bichir is a tad too idealized to convince as Carlos—but he has many fine moments of endearing humility. For me, Bichir’s best moment comes early on, when in the morning he gently opens the door to his son’s bedroom (Luis has the one bed; Carlos sleeps on the living room couch) to peek in, to see his boy innocently asleep, gently closes the door and knocks, to wake up Luis for school. A much more interesting performance is given by round-faced José Julián as Luis, who is quick-trigger violent, seemingly impervious to his father’s humane example, which in fact embarrasses him. Emotionally elastic, Julián (for me) dominates the film, compelling us to ponder the spiritual cost to Luis of his father’s wish for his materialistic advancement. Concomitantly, we note Carlos’s—hence, Luis’s— exclusion from Sunday Mass; one of the film’s best shots finds Carlos, traveling by bus, catching a poignant glimpse of the Cross inside a church.
The clear-cut plot culminates in the inhuman deportation of Carlos back to Mexico. A four-year-later coda shows Luis, now adopted by his Aunt Anna, assimilated into the straight-laced lifestyle she has asserted. Message: He will forget his father as he has already forgotten his mother—although his resistance to the temptation of gang life suggests his father’s continuing influence and legacy. This is followed by an ambiguous, and implicitly grisly, finish: Carlos’s return to the U.S., led by a coyote, as he enters the desert that may kill him, just as it kills so many who cross the border from Mexico. We note what the filmmakers refrain from showing: a father-son reunion, the implication being that Carlos and Luis never again meet. The naïve will interpret this ending one way; realists will interpret it quite differently. Clever cowards will invoke the convenient term, “open-ended.”
You can lead some people to water; but, if they are determined not to, you cannot make them think.
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