By Anna Bielak | March 7, 2012
Director: Chris Weitz
Writers: Eric Eason (screenplay), Roger L. Simon (story)
Starring: Demián Bichir, Joaquín Cosio, José Julián, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Dolores Heredia, Isabella Rae Thomas, Carlos Linares
Let’s find a better world — crazy idea, ironic attitude — there is no such a thing as “a better world,” it could be different than the one we know, that’s all. And different does not mean worse, even if lots of filmmakers seem to doubt it. Watching Chris Weitz’s A Better Life I had in mind the latest creative output — The Outraged (Indignados) — directed by Tony Gatlif. The lead character, Betty (Mamebetty Honoré Diallo), traveled from Africa to Spain with the hope of finding a new, better world and a better life for herself. Instead, she ventures straight into a march of striking people on Madrid’s streets. Counting on finding a well paid job, Betty finds an economic crisis instead. Chris Weitz’s plot about a father and a son focuses on similar problem.
Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir — Oscar nominated and great!) crosses the border between south and north America to find a better life for his son. Does he fall straight into paradise’s arms? Not in the least. I would really like to quote George Clooney from the opening sequence of The Descendands: “Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.” And I did it, even if I should not. The hero of Chris Weitz’s film would never use that kind of phrase to comment on any of the events that appear in his would-be-paradise world. He is very specific kind of character, one who is good from the very beginning till the far end. He is like the biblical Samaritan who believes with all of his heart that he should turn the other cheek in every single bad situation he finds himself. Demián Bichir is convincing enough to let me believe that Carlos is a real person not just a paper-made figure from the script.
Carlos is an illegal immigrant who works seven days a week doing shitty, dangerous jobs. Carlos’ teenage son Luis (José Julián) does not have opportunity to see his father often enough; but, on the contrary, we have many chances to see the city in which they live. From the various perspectives we can observe the streets, people chatting with each other, or empty spaces covered with only the sun light. We see all of this in slow motion while Luis walks down the streets; or we catch a glimpse of the landscapes through the glass of Carlos’ car as it quickly passes by. From a distance, we observe immigrants surging among themselves as a group and Carlos usually stands among them waiting to be taken to work. Looking at all of this brings to mind similar scenes from It’s a Free World… (2007) directed by Ken Loach. There is no difference between Carlos’ American Dream and the immigrants’ nightmare in Britain revealed by Loach.
Despite that similarity, Weitz does not refer to British social cinema as much as he cites the iconic movie of the neo-realism movement — Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio de Sica. This reference is visible as simply as we could imagine it. One day Carlos decides to change his life a bit so he borrows money from his sister and buys a truck to become his own boss. Now he is the one who takes the other immigrants to work. Ironically, while he is up in a high tree — he works as a gardener — looking at beautiful landscape, his co-worker steals his car. After that incident it becomes increasingly obvious that a major part of this whole film will be Carlos searching for his lost vehicle. Carlos with the help of Luis would be raking through the city like the father and son in de Sica’s film. In a way, even the backgrounds of these events are similar — as we match the poorest of Italy during the post-war economic crisis with immigrants struggling to find work during the current crisis. It is also easy to transfer style or threads of the plot into another time or place with the belief that people’s homes are no longer the same as the places where they were born.
Home can be something temporary. We can take it with us whenever we go and connect with our new life conditions. Literally, home is temporary for Weitz’s characters. Luis has his own room, Carlos is sleeping on the couch in a living room as a guest in his own house; as he believes that this is a short-term situation. Does he notice that it has been several years since he moved into that house? Weitz is much more conscious about the steps he takes. Even the background story of the son is carried out in a very uncommon way. Luis, as many other film characters from poor families, has many opportunities to join the local gang, taking or selling drugs, etc.; yet he retreats every single time and finds another path to take. Thanks to that, Weitz retreats away from the schema that has led many other filmmakers astray while attempting to create a realistic portrait of marginal societies.