The trailer to Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) held me at violin point. It threatened me with wet eyes, shameless sentiment and that tried and true art house plot staple: cute little kid melts the heart of grumpy adult during their travels together. You know the type: Kolya, Central Station, and dozens of other less successful films that get submitted for Oscar consideration in the foreign film category each year. The trailer also makes the bizarrely amnesiac claim, “Not since Cinema Paradiso has a film captured the hearts of audiences around the world.” I can’t vouch for the veracity of that statement. That’s 19 years of movies that the trailer denounces as globally unloved. Oh sure, maybe that movie you loved also captured hearts in Mexico, Norway, and Asia, but the French refused to be moved, booing it at Cannes. Or maybe something your best friend still raves about came close, with only Switzerland remaining neutral. What film is loved by the entire world in the past two decades? Only two, if you believe Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company. The pressure was enough to shake me more than a little, but as it turns out, this “story of the bond between mother and son that can never be broken” (gag) was more endearing than horrifying.
The opening scene uses clever crosscutting to set up the expectations that we’re seeing the first part of the story: mother and son soon to be separated. But gradually it dawns on you that they already are. Movie stories should always begin in progress, and this one has: Rosario (acclaimed Mexican actress Kate del Castillo) and her son, Carlos (young professional Adrian Alonso — this is his sixth film) are not under the same roof. They’re merely under the same moon. They look at it when they’re lonely for each other, and they circle Sundays on their respective calendars. At 10:00 a.m. each and every Sunday, Rosario will call her sweet Carlitos from a pay phone in Los Angeles, and for a precious few moments, they’ll exchange news and affection.
Unfortunately, the news is always the same. Rosario is still struggling to get a green card. She’s still working illegally trying to save up money. She still can’t risk sending for her darling boy in Mexico even after four long and lonely years apart. Carlos is turning 9 on this particular Sunday, and his relatives are getting more aggressive about stealing him away from his grandmother so that they can enjoy the relative prosperity of the fat checks Rosario sends him each month. When his grandmother suddenly dies, Carlitos — a smart, resourceful young boy — decides to take matters into his own hands. He becomes an illegal himself, smuggled to the Mexico/U.S. border under the backseat of a car driven by Marta (America Ferrara in an extended cameo).
Naturally, things get more complicated from there (I won’t spoil the plot twists). The closer that Carlos gets to a potential reunion with his mum, the higher the dramatic stakes are raised. The film, which is rather obviously but smartly divided up into eight chapters or days of the week, is briskly paced and involving. Carlos is desperate to find his mother before the following Sunday, when she’ll call and there’ll be no little boy to answer the phone. Rosario, meanwhile, running out of patience with her daily struggle, is considering entering a visa-friendly marriage she doesn’t want or even returning to Mexico herself, setting up the grotesque possibility that we’re in for an O. Henry “Gift of the Magi”-style resolution, only more tragic: Carlos at 9 years old alone in a foreign country; his mother returned to Mexico, childless.
At first, the film feels full of broad characterizations within a similarly broad-stroke framework or political issues (at one point a Spanish song that correctly posits Superman as an illegal alien plays as we see a group of Mexicans hard at work only to be attacked and arrested by police), but gradually the film deepens. The momentum of our emotional involvement is due in no small part to an able and sensitive cast. Del Castillo paints Rosario as so single-minded that her refusal to consider some rather practical solutions early in the film is maddening. But just as you begin to feel that the woman is obtuse, she adds beautiful notes of dawning realization. In the film’s last few scenes in particular you can see her awakening to new possibilities that the viewer may have given up on her noticing. She’s been revealing an embedded survival mechanism that’s no longer as useful to her as it once was, rather than dimwittedness. It’s always a joy to find actors who are ahead of you in terms of where their performance is going. In other adult roles, singer/actor Ernesto D’Alessio make a huge emotional impact in a brief role as Carlos’ biological father. And Eugenio Derbez, a popular Mexican star, adds wonderfully comic grace notes as Enrique, the reluctant and grumpy traveling companion to the little boy.
Under the Same Moon’s true success comes down to that little boy. Foreign films with child stars always feel a little suspect, but the young actor at the center of this journey film is terrific, all natural charisma and open-hearted close-ups that are free of the “look at me” precociousness that mars work by so many American child actors. (My theory is that they’ve all seen too much television, and perform rather than act). Whenever I see a film like Under the Same Moon that tugs ruthlessly on the heartstrings, I suspect I wouldn’t be able to handle its sentiment if it were an American film. Francois Truffaut backs me up on this: “We always appreciate better what comes to us from afar, not only because of the attraction for the exotic but because the absence of everyday reinforces the prestige of the work.” What he said.
I resisted, but Under the Same Moon prevailed. I swallowed the first round of lumps in my throat and I held strong against it until about halfway through, when I caved. I especially loved the way the film cuts itself off before risking overkill in the endearingly awkward city-street rhythms of its predictable but highly satisfying conclusion. The movie didn’t capture the entirety of my cold and cynical heart, but it laid claim to a good chunk of it for 106 minutes. That is to say, the comparison to the relentless eye-flooding power of Cinema Paradiso is really overdoing it, but I won’t lie to you. There’s probably surveillance video at Lincoln Plaza Cinema to prove this anyhow. I did dab my eyes several times as I exited the theater. Damn you, Carlitos, and your unbreakable mother/son love bond! You got me.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.
Under the Same Moon / Nathaniel Rogers
Film Reviews | April 9, 2008 | Comments ()