Director John Sayles explores adoption abroad

In John Sayles' 1997 Hombres Armados/Men With Guns, a beloved old physician journeys through the mountains of his unnamed Latin American country. Of all the characters he encounters along the way, two minor ones stick out like bad pesetas - tourists, played by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, who are crass caricatures of gringo arrogance and obtuseness. They speak Spanish haltingly, defectively, in an accent as thick as New York salami. "What's the word for fajitas?" asks Patinkin.

Casa de Los Babys
Dir. & writ. John Sayles; feat. Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Rita Moreno, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhall, Susan Lynch (R)
In Casa de Los Babys, also set in an unnamed Latin American country (but filmed in Acapulco), the clueless Yankees have multiplied and seized center stage. Sayles' latest film is the story of six North American women who go south to acquire abandoned babies. While enduring the ordeal of official approval, they stay in the same hotel, Casa de Los Babys. During the single day on which the film is focused, one would-be mother has already been waiting more than two months, and her application for a child seems no closer to endorsement than when she arrived. The supplicants pass their anxious time sightseeing and backbiting.

It must have seemed auspicious when Sayles, who taught himself enough Spanish to write convincing dialogue for a 1991 novel, Los Gusanos, about Cubanos on their native island and in Miami, assembled six formidable actresses in Mexico to dramatize the frustrations of adoption abroad. But despite its promising premise, Casa de Los Babys is a house built on bile. Insufficiently differentiated, the privileged women who have come to snatch babies from an impoverished land are all attractive narcissists. The hotel manager is eager to pocket their money, but her sottish leftist son accuses them of cultural imperialism, a verdict Sayles seems to accept, as though the adorable infants his camera periodically scans would not be better off wanted and free from want.

The most affecting section of the film occurs about two-thirds of the way through, when a gringa and a hotel maid each deliver an extended monologue that the other feels but does not understand. While a frail, young peasant cleans her rented room, a would-be mother who knows no Spanish fantasizes aloud about a snowy day with her adopted daughter. Although the maid lacks English, she is transfixed by the stranger's wistful soliloquy. The maid in turn recounts in Spanish, how, forced to care for younger siblings, she gave up her own baby to a foreigner. She pines for the child, who gained a mother who can afford her, but lost her madre. This simple, bilingual scene uses language to reach beyond words, and it recalls the dramatic power Sayles summoned more consistently in Matewan, Lone Star, and Limbo.

Along with a man desperate for any job or else a ticket to Philadelphia, and a pregnant teenager whose mother pressures her to sell the baby, the maid is one of the few sympathetic characters. The rest of the cast includes a trio of paint-sniffing urchins too old for adoption, a cynical lawyer, and a callous young seducer. The scorching city in which the film is set, a site of atrocities under the Inquisition, is currently rife with corruption. When one of the visitors turns on a TV, another asks what is the point, since everything is in Spanish. The first replies: "Stupidity is the universal language." A film by John Sayles is too fine an instrument to waste on telling us only that. •

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