Picks and Pans Review: The Milagro Beanfield War

updated 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 01:00AM

You can choke on the hard-sell integrity of Robert Redford's second film as a director (he won an Oscar for his first, 1980's Ordinary People). He didn't just make the movie; he fought to make it. Redford has said people told him: "Ah, who cares about Mexicans in the mountains, fighting about water?" But he persevered. Redford loves the West (he lives in Utah) and cares about the threat of cultural extinction when you put dollars for land development in contest with tradition. John Nichols' rambling, 200-character 1974 novel about the Spanish, Mexican and Indian world of northern New Mexico touched him deeply. So Redford hired a largely Hispanic cast and crew and went to work. Give the man an A in civics. But forgive audiences for thinking they might be in for an endurance test. Surprise, they're not. Milagro is a robust, comic and openhearted film of disarming simplicity. Full of flaws, mind you, but the film is not quite the kind of ponderous Beans of Wrath saga you may have feared. Redford goes easy on the novel's politics, polemics and allegorical allusions to Vietnam. Co-screenwriter David (The Sting) Ward has helped Nichols pare down his book. Center screen is Joe Mondragon, a Chicano handyman who illegally irrigates his late father's abandoned bean field with water belonging to a commercial developer. The Hispanic locals cheer, seeing the bean field as a symbol of their past risen from the dust. The revolution is on. Redford gets good, unforced performances from Chick (Yanks) Vennera as Mondragon, salsa singer-songwriter Ruben Blades as Milagro's shrewd sheriff and Sonia (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Braga as the rabble-rousing owner of the town's auto repair shop. He fares less well with some of the Anglo actors in the cast. Richard Bradford as the venal developer, Christopher Walken as an undercover agent for the state police and John Heard as a disillusioned liberal lawyer are rarely able to sidestep their stereotypical roles. Redford leaves no doubt about which side he's on. The shots of the undeveloped landscape in sunlight or storm are breathtaking enough to make the blot of condos and tennis courts appear unbearable. But Redford is realist enough to know that so-called progress cannot be long held at bay. So he has turned his film into a fable in which even the bad guys eventually come to their senses. An angel of the past (Robert Carricart) in sombrero and poncho hovers protectively over Milagro, talking to an old man (Carlos Riquelme) who represents the dignity of a people under siege. Riquelme, a 74-year-old Mexican comic actor, is the film's glory. Whether he is chatting with his pet pig, contemplating the folly of his children or thanking God for granting him the gift of another day, Riquelme takes full measure of what is lost when tradition is trampled. His is a beautiful, haunting performance. Redford can be easily pardoned for giving the old man a sentimental last walk into the sunset. Milagro may fall somewhere short of being a dream film, but Redford can take justifiable pride in having made the film of his dreams. (R)

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