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Some parents will do everything in their power to see that their children have a better life than they did growing up. Certainly this is a commonly shared dream among first generation immigrants to America but Popi (1969), an urban tragicomedy set in New York City's Spanish Harlem, is a rather extreme expression of this desire. The title character (Alan Arkin) is a widower working three jobs in an effort to provide for his two sons. A Puerto Rican by birth, Popi concocts an outlandish scheme to insure that his boys won't grow up in the grinding poverty that currently surrounds them. His first resolve is to pass them off as Cubans because refugees from that island are often hailed as heroes for fleeing the political regime there. Then he coaches them diligently on Cuban geography and how to navigate a boat at sea before setting them adrift off the coast of Florida where he hopes they'll be picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, brought ashore, become media stars and eventually be adopted by wealthy foster parents. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and the boys are temporarily lost at sea, culminating in an unpredictable but bittersweet climax.
Popi was made at a time when Cuban refugees were arriving almost daily on the shores of Florida and generating national newspaper headlines. While the film may have lost some of its topicality since then, it is still a vivid slice of New York City life rarely captured on the screen; in this case, the Spanish Harlem area with its teeming tenements and crowded streets. And it makes a striking contrast to the sunny, open-air setting of Miami, a genuine tourist destination, which figures prominently in the second half of the movie.
Alan Arkin was at the peak of his success as a lead actor when he made Popi, having just scored his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor the previous year in 1968's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. (His first nomination was for his film debut in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming in 1966.) Unfortunately, Popi was overlooked by Academy Award voters that year in favor of another New York slice of life -- the more controversial Midnight Cowboy. Still, Popi contains one of Arkin's best performances, an excellent supporting turn by Rita Moreno as Popi's frustrated girlfriend, Lupe, and the immensely appealing presence of screen newcomers Miguel Alejandro and Ruben Figueroa as Popi's sons.
Though it performed only modestly at the box office, Popi was well received by most critics, with the New York Times proclaiming it "one of the warmest, funniest, most original and most contagious screen comedies in years....The release is one of those rare films where everything works, from a sparkling, thoughtful scenario by Tina and Lester Pine...to the pungent authenticity of the backgrounds." The main focus in most reviews, however, was the underlying theme of the film -- the effect of ghetto life on children. In referring to Popi's two sons, Time magazine said it best, "They are not kids but brittle, wizened old men who pay for survival in the slums with bits and pieces of their most valuable possession. For, as Popi sadly illustrates, the real crime on the streets is not riots or muggings. It is the stealing of childhood from children."
Producer: Herbert B. Leonard
Director: Arthur Hiller
Screenplay: Tina Pine, Les Pine
Art Direction: Robert Gundlach
Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo
Editing: Anthony Ciccolini
Music: Dominic Frontiere
Principal Cast: Alan Arkin (Abraham), Rita Moreno (Lupe), Miguel Alejandro (Junior), Ruben Figueroa (Luis), John Harkins (Harmon), Arny Freeman (Mr. Diaz), Joan Tompkins (Miss Musto).
by Jeff Stafford