Regardless of your opinions on immigration, one thing is clear: The system has all kinds of problems. Some are political, some are logistical and others simply come down to money. But what immigration, legal or illegal, should be about is the people involved, no matter what side of the border they live on.
That's what makes Antonio Méndez Esparza's new film, Aquí y Allá ("Here and There")— opening Friday, May 10, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park—so strong. It's not about immigration at all. Politics never enters into it. It's about people— nothing more, nothing less—and it gives a kind of insight into the issue that you rarely, if ever, see in films.
It begins when Pedro (Pedro De Los Santos) returns to his hometown, the tiny mountain village of Guerrero. He's been gone for quite some time, working in the U.S. to make money for his family, and he's missed a lot. His daughters, Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez) and Heidi (Heidi Laura Solano Espinoza), are well into adolescence, and his wife, Teresa (Teresa Ramírez Aguirre), is distant and sad. All Pedro's wanted to do the entire time he's been gone is come home, and now that he's finally returned, life isn't nearly as easy as he'd hoped. And why should it be? Years of absence and sacrifice have provided for his family financially, but it's taken an emotional toll on everyone.
Life moves forward, however, and the family adapts to having Pedro around. It should be said, too, that Pedro's truly living his dream. He earned enough in the U.S. to come home and start the Capo Kings, the band he's always dreamed of forming. The life of a musician is tough, though, no matter where you live. It's hard to find the right blend of band members, make time to rehearse and book gigs. When Teresa quickly becomes pregnant, things get even more challenging, especially when complications arise. Soon, both her life and the life of the baby are in danger, and Pedro's forced to leap through all kinds of hoops, spending the meager savings he's put together to try to keep his family together.
Much of Esparza's film is heartbreaking, simply because of Pedro's heavy burden. Sure, he's finally back where he's supposed to be, and once his family has bonded, each member feels his absence was worth it. But it's not that simple. Making a living in Guerrero is tough. There's very little farming work to be found, construction shuts down due to budgetary concerns and, though the Capo Kings are pretty good, the band isn't exactly lucrative.
After months at home, Pedro faces some desperately tough decisions. He clearly loves his family, but it's possible that the best way to provide for them is to be elsewhere. It's tragic and, in many ways, unfair, and it's also clear that Pedro's family is in no way unique. People come and go in Guerrero; families are split and scattered across the country as people leave to find work, and the film shows us the ripple effect.
Esparza doesn't have an axe to grind. His focus is telling a simple story, that of a family confronting unfortunate circumstances. Yes, their story is fraught with larger implications, but by not focusing on those implications, he allows his audience to draw its own conclusions.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, what he has here is a well-crafted film. The cinematography is smart and creative, and the pacing is often deliberate and slow. He's working with non-professional actors who provide a nice, natural feel, and he lets scenes play out in ways that sometimes make you feel almost awkwardly voyeuristic. Aquí y Allá is a very small movie, but it won the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes, and it's easy to see why.
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