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The Milagro Beanfield War
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The Milagro Beanfield War

The Milagro Beanfield War

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) begins with one angel dancing out of a sunrise and two angels dancing into a sunset. Three, if you count Robert Redford, who produced and directed it and, most importantly, adroitly balanced its tricky elements to fashion it into a endearing – and enduring -- populist fable. Nobody at the time thought to refer to Redford's dip into contemporary folklore, magic realism, quirky characters and simpatico rapport with pre-Anglo culture as avant-garde. Perhaps more to the point was that critics and the public at the time were a bit derriere-garde in their grasp of how a flattened indigenous subculture, instead of being dispossessed and dispersed once and for all, regenerates itself in a beanfield, replenished by the natural world, defeating its would-be despoilers. Although guns are drawn, and in a few instances actually fired, this isn't a body-count film. It's a celebration of activism raised to self-empowerment.

In today's climate of dwindling resources and increasing environmental awareness, it's not insignificantly a film about water rights, about a community finding itself with a few assists from nature, whether in the form of a beanfield maintained by a stubborn holdout (Chick Vennera) against developers' bulldozers, or a timely gust of wind that circulates sequestered copies of a muckraking newspaper whose entire press run is about to be put to the torch. As a pushy developer (Richard Bradford), pockets stuffed with compliant pols as much as with cash, prepares to turn a spacious but mostly parched corner of northern New Mexico into what he boasts will be the state's largest leisure time development, it's a question of whose water is it anyway? And beyond that, will it just be another chapter in the long history of exploitation of Hispanica by America?

Here's where those angels come in. The Milagro Beanfield War establishes a tone of buoyant magic realism as an old sombrero-wearing campesino (Robert Carricart) dances out of the night in slo-mo, concertina in hand, through the dawn and into a one-room house for his daily pre-breakfast dialogue with its -- and the town's -- oldest inhabitant, Amarante (Carlos Riquelme). Amarante is the conduit for the culture and the ancient beliefs that have sustained that culture through centuries of impoverishment, or would, if the present generation stayed linked to it, drawing upon it for strength. Sometimes it needs to withstand the well-meant efforts of its friends. These range from John Heard's battle-weary social activist, who'd retire from the fray if Sonia Braga's local tempesta would let him, to Daniel Stern's visiting sociologist from NYU, adding his good-natured bungling to the mix.

But mostly it's Bradford's goons, more inherently savage than their boss, who are prepared to bring lethal force to bear. It's not that they're devoted to the proposed golf course whose creation will result in the bulldozing of the small-fry farmer's beanfield; they're mostly just bullies who get off on throwing their weight around, especially when they feel they've been sanctioned by bought legislators. The exception is Christopher Walken's Kyril Montana, a dirty tricks specialist from the state capital, recycling the bounty hunter he played in Heaven's Gate (1980) and blending it with the kind of otherworldly psychosis he has made so uniquely his own. Can an old man with an old Colt .45 Peacemaker, loaded with bullets he traded food stamps to get, possibly be a match for him? For that matter, what about Vennera's farmer, Joe Mondragon, who out of desperation opens the developer's turned-off water tap that has all Joe's people dying from thirst? They're such Davids and the Goliaths are such Goliaths that you aren't inclined to begrudge them a little supernatural help. The developers have a lot of money, law and bulldozers. The locals have a little mojo, a lot of passivity connected to self-preservation, and even more waffling and squabbling among themselves.

Yet it's a source of strength that the script fashioned from John Nichols' 1974 novel doesn't lean too hard on the magic, even as it sensitively and miraculously taps into the intangible qualities of the parched land surrounded by magnificent purple mountains (it was filmed in Truchas, NM, with a kind of Southwest authenticity no California locale could give it). Everything that happens is rooted in the real world, nothing defies the laws of physics. The film is quasi-magical in its mood, but mysticism is never unduly pressed into service. And the finished product reflects the respect Redford obviously brought to the land and its people. They're activists only reluctantly, but they're not militant, much less warlike. They head into the clash with dread, knowing that however morally right they may be, they're on the wrong side of the legal system.

Redford's biggest genuflection to the culture comes in his decision to tell the story from their perspective. It doesn't pretend to be anything but that of a simpatico outsider. His surrogate – like novelist Nichols' – is to be found in Heard's Anglo civil rights lawyer turned small town newspaper publisher and commercial printer. The matter-of-fact diversity of the local culture is reflected in Redford's casting of Panamanian Ruben Blades as the sheriff sanely and knowledgably trying to keep a lid on things, Brazilian Sonia Braga as the local firebrand, Tex-Mex Freddy Fender as the let's-just-get-along mayor, and the beguiling Mexican film veteran, Riquelme, making his Hollywood debut here at 75.

The intimate scale of the particulars of these people who belong to the land as much as the land belongs to them sits well against the spacious canopies of sky. It's part of the charm of this ensemble piece whose amiability is more apparent than its complex weave. Redford, alluding to its magic realism and extravagant arcs of belief, has compared it to the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The filmic comparison that most readily springs to mind is the postwar Italian wretched masses' communal ascension to a better life in Vittorio De Sica's even more unknown and undeservedly under-appreciated Miracle in Milan (1951). The not-so-secret ingredient in Redford's enchilada-flavored peasant uprising? Something about governing without the consent of the governed, especially the economically governed.

Producers: Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Redford
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay: David Ward; John Nichols (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Robbie Greenberg
Art Direction: Brandy Alexander, Joe Aubel, Pamela Marcotte
Music: Dave Grusin
Film Editing: Dede Allen, Jim Miller
Cast: Ruben Blades (Sheriff Bernabe Montoya), Richard Bradford (Ladd Devine), Sonia Braga (Ruby Archuleta), Julie Carmen (Nancy Mondragon), James Gammon (Horsethief Shorty), Melanie Griffith (Flossie Devine), John Heard (Charlie Bloom), Carlos Riquelme (Amarante Cordova), Daniel Stern (Herbie Platt), Chick Vennera (Joe Mondragon), Christopher Walken (Kyril Montana), Freddy Fender (Mayor Sammy Cantu), Tony Genaro (Nick Rael), Jerry Hardin (Emerson Capps), Ronald G. Joseph (Jerry G), Mario Arrambide (Carl).
C-118m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Jay Carr VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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