El Callejon de los Milagros is a Mexican movie, with the marvelous Salma Hayek in the lead role, based on an Egyptian novel, Midaq Alley, by Naguib Mahfouz. So we have 1945 Cairo transported to 1992 Mexico City, Muslims become Catholics, homosexual longing, old men longing for young women, infidelity, pleasure-for-pay and murder. How faithful the characters are, or the story line, to Mahfouz’ conception I couldn’t say. The movie works pretty well on its own starting with a marvelous sound track under the opening titles, by Lucia Alvarez and continuing with pungent strings of Mexican “palabrotas,” which are decently, if not always uniformly, translated. You woudn’t have to know anything about its Egyptian parentage to enjoy it, though perhaps enjoy isn’t the right word. Mahfouz does not believe in happy endings. So while love works its redemption in the final scenes, one of the protagonists is too near death to recognize it.
The movie is set out as 3 intertwined stories, each beginning in the same bar with the same game of dominoes and the same jests between the players. The atmosphere of a neighborhood bar where everyone knows each other and what to expect, with lots of ribbing, loud opinions and plenty of advice to hand around, is perfectly captured. Each of the individual stories unwinds from this dominoes game — of chance and choice– including scenes we have seen before, through different eyes, and introducing us to more of the players. While the story grows denser, with more layers, it’s not a Rashomon investigation of a crime. It’s the mystery of life which no one can ever fully get hold of.
Don Ru [Ernesto Gómez Cruz] is the uneven owner of the local bar where the dominoes are played, extemporaneous poetry recited and most everyone stops through at one time or another. At times sweet and sentimental at times explosively angry he has decided to indulge his growing affection for a young man; his affection for his wife having fallen away dramatically as we see in a hilarious sequence in which she, on their 30th wedding anniversary, tries to engage his interest. [Don’t forget, this was 1945 Cairo when conceived.] One of the regulars hurls furious imprecations at him from Dante. His son, Chava [Juan Manuel Bernal], appalled at his father’s new amor, attacks them in a sauna with bloody consequences and lights out for the US, with his best friend Abel [Bruno Bichir] who is head over heals in love with Alma [Salma Hayek]– and promises to return to her once he has made some money in the US.
Alma’s story is the second story, and she is the heart of the movie. We have seen her in the first section, sitting on a window sill, leg fetchingly bare and combing out her just washed hair. Abel and Chava passing a joint back and forth when they see her and are stopped in their tracks. As her story unfolds we see her in the apartment with her mother Doña Cata [María Rojo] who is trying to make a living by reading cards, and to get her beautiful daughter married to someone better than “any beggar on the streets.” Alma is the perfect confusion of shyness and daring, playfulness and rejection. She sees Abel buying marijuana and insists on doing it: If you can smoke, so can I! She insists on the eroticism that follows even as he resists: Not like this, not like this, Alma! [The sound track is particularly notable here, quietly seconding the confusion of love and the haze of la mota.] She is properly and seductively stand-offish as Abel asks if he can be her boyfriend, and truly sad when he suddenly decides to go al otro lado with Chava. They exchange vows of foreverness, and return and fidelity.
She has, however, already begun to see what the world offers her beauty when a much older man, a shop keeper across the street, brings a necklace she had been pressed to admire, to the house — setting up a comic interlude as Doña Cata, assuming the necklace was for her, fusses and primps and pays a visit to acknowledge his interest. He proposes marriage to Alma instead who, when he arrives with hands full of presents, plays the young, uncultured barrio girl to perfection –her room is full of stuffed animals and girlish things– as he offers her opera, theater, symphony.
Then the local playboy steps in. Fine car, fine clothes, a persuasive way. With the fortuitous death of the elderly fiancée, excited by a game of dominoes no less, she soon allows herself to go with him to the races, dining and dancing with him, and finally to his mansion, which she discovers to her horror is a high-class brothel. She bolts. He sneers and says she will be back. Of course she is — attracted by the luxury, perhaps by her recent introduction to love, perhaps to her new sexual cravings. [I’ve got to read the Mahfouz book and find out how he played this out in Cairo of the 1940s!]
The landlady, Susanita is the third story. We have met her twice already, having her cards read, desperate to find love. Her mouth of appalling teeth is a major hindrance but with luck, some dental work [which is a much broader story in the novel — good replacement teeth from cadavers] and her steady income, she attracts a much younger Guicho [Luis Felipe Tovar] who works in Don Ru’s bar, and is perennially in need of money.
Hers is the shortest of the three, and perhaps the most hopeful. After she discovers Guicho stealing from her, and kicks him out there is a suggestion of love to be re-found, after all. Her story though must make way for what is in effect the 4th story but is a continuation of Alma’s. Abel and Chava return after two year away. Abel has a nest egg and has come to make good on his promise to marry her and begin life together. She is of course, lost, deep in the life of drug addiction and high-class prostitution. Their confrontation and his with her pimp constitute the sad, minimally redemptive ending.
One of the problems to a North American audience is what seems to be indecision as to the emotional level the movie wants to maintain. At times it is purely comic. At times it is serious and heartbreaking, though sometimes this heartbreak occurs with a level of overacting that, to our ears, throws it into possible farce. Scenes of Don Ru chasing his wife around the house berating her could be meant as a scene of serious abuse or as a comic effect. Changes of emotion from fury to abject weeping happen so fast it almost reads as a theatrical laugh-cry exercise rather than an actual change of emotional state. Most of the acting is not like this. As in any good movie we feel like we are watching life unfold as we sit behind a one-way mirror. There are enough of this Mexican tele-novela style though, to be worth mentioning.
That said, I enjoyed it. The spoken Mexican Spanish is clear and colloquial. The sub-titles are decently done. The sound track in many places is quite wonderful, supportive of the emotions at the moment but without the histrionics of some of the acting. I’ve actually watched it twice, and it garnered a piñata full of awards. Certainly worth an evening, and worth it more if you have interest in Mexico, Mahfouz or the latest in Mexican movie making. Jorge Fons, the director, has a long list of credits and I’ll certainly be looking at more of his work. Salma, well, she’s terrific. This was a bit of a breakout film for her and by now she is well known, and respected for more than just her beauty. Her 2002 role as Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida, which she also co-produced was a major milestone for her.