SXSW 2014: Cesar Chavez
Review by Daniel Rester
Cesar Chavez tells the story of the real-life Chavez, a Mexican American civil rights activist, farm worker, and labor organizer who stood for the rights of many from the 1960s onward. He was undoubtedly an important man for that era and those to follow, and director Diego Luna tries to capture the man’s significance with Chavez. Luna’s labor-of-love efforts are admirable, but unfortunately the film never rises above being a pretty standard-issue biopic.
The film mostly covers Chavez’s seminal work in the 1960s and 1970s. This includes the formation of the United Farm Workers and such events as the Delano grape strike and the 1975 Modesto march. Such events involved Chavez and others gathering farm workers together to stand against racism and poor working conditions.
Michael Pena plays Chavez here. The actor is very likable and is starting to make quite the name for himself in the movies. He does a good job here, too, but I was honestly more captivated by him as an L.A. cop in the 2012 film End of Watch than I was by him here. The actor is fitting and occasionally powerful in Chavez, but he never digs out the dramatic punch one hopes for by the end of the film. Still, I look forward to seeing what Pena does next and I respect him for taking on such a role.
Other cast members include America Ferrera (as Helen Chavez), Rosario Dawson (as Dolores Huerta), Wes Bentley (as Jerry Cohen), and John Malkovich (as the “villainous” Bogdanovich Senior). Luna certainly gathered a talented group of individuals for the project, and the acting is all fine; Ferrera even stands out at times as Chavez’s wife. The main issue lies more with the characters than the acting.
Chavez himself is interesting as a man, but Luna and screenwriter Keir Pearson never flesh out the supporting players too much. The side characters are instead mostly just serviceable as a way to keep story momentum. In this way it is hard to really care about most of the people, though many of them stood up for great things. This is a rare moment where I actually wish a film was longer; I feel that some added minutes could have helped in developing Dawson and Malkovich’s characters.
Luna does show some confidence behind the camera with Chavez. He and cinematographer Enrique Chediak use some hand-held camerawork in a distractingly shaky manner at times, but they capture the period and dramatics fairly well. The editing by Douglas Crise and Miguel Schverdfinger is solid as well; the two do a fine job at mixing in archival footage with Luna’s footage.
While some of the dialogue and characters are banal, Luna never risks making things overdramatic either. He could have easily made the film too heavy on speechifying, but he instead lets the initial story and images do most of the work. He also digs into a few moments between Chavez and his family that ring true. The director then kicks things into gear for a terrific finale, though the film on a whole is never as stirring as it wants to be. All in all, though, Luna did a respectable job behind the camera.
Chavez is an entertaining and informative biopic, and it is obviously made with care by those involved. However, nothing about it stuck strongly with me after the viewing. This leads me to say that Chavez is a pretty good film that tells an important story, but it is likely not a film that will rise up as greatly with film audiences as Chavez himself did with his farm gatherings.
Score: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B-)
Runtime: 1 hour and 41 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: March 28th, 2014.