MANITO (Eric Eason, 2002)

About an impoverished Dominican-U.S. American family in Washington Heights, Eric Eason’s Manito won a slew of festival prizes. It’s a good treatment of struggling Latino life in an urban environment.
     It was shot using hand-held digital video cameras, and I have to tell you something about this. When I first saw Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, I remarked how sad it is that Americans don’t seem to be able to get the hang of this vibrant, electric use of camera. Whereas something like The Idiots is visually assured, in American movies nearly all the hand-held stuff is typically amateurish, erratic, irritating. Not so Manito. Here is an American movie that uses the Trier/Dogme 95 perpetually moving, jumping, zigzagging camera style so that the narrative unfolds in the clearest possible, most expressive way. Here, this particular style suits and clarifies the material rather than seeming, with every jump, zig and zag, annoyingly added on.
     It would never have occurred to me had Eason not mentioned this himself in an interview I read today, but it makes sense that he cites De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a major influence on Manito—this, despite the fact that, stylistically, two films farther apart would be hard to imagine. But Manito is humane at its core and sympathetic with the plight of its characters. You wouldn’t think this De Sicability might marry so beautifully with the energetic camera style, but it does.
     Who is this Eason? He is not a kid, having turned, or about to turn, 40 this year. Nor does he come from a background of poverty. Rather, he is the nephew of Russell Rouse, who won an Oscar 45 years ago for co-writing the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy Pillow Talk! Eason has made a few films since Manito.
     Manito is without pleading or rhetoric, it avoids sentimentality despite dealing with family (and community) relationships; it’s an honest slice of life. It is a bit foul-mouthed and, necessarily, harsh, even violent; so you may need to partner it with good scotch or bourbon rather than popped corn. I made do with black coffee, although the film itself is an eye-opener and yet another reminder of how fresh and appealing at least independent American movies can sometimes be.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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