(NR) Three and a half stars
Thank goodness for Key Cinemas, the “little engine that could” of independent theaters. Were it not for the unassuming two-screener on the south side of town, so many rewarding small films would never play Indianapolis. Romantico is one of those movies.
Filmmaker Mark Becker set out to make a short about Mariachi musicians near his home in San Francisco, but the project grew into something more once he met Carmelo Muniz Sanchez, a 57-year-old singer/guitarist working illegally in the United States to send money home to Mexico for his wife, daughter and ailing mother.
Don’t go to the theater expecting a screed on the illegal immigration controversy. Becker’s film is about a person, not a debate — though I wouldn’t be surprised if the film prompts some to reexamine their stance on the subject. Romantico deals with what it’s like to be a man approaching 60 with scant money and lots of responsibilities.
Carmelo may have the soul of an artist, but he is a practical sort who never forgets those who depend on him. He notes the many difficulties in his life, but rarely complains about them, matter-of-factly stating that when things get rough, you pray to God and you make do.
He lives a life of service and a great part of the appeal of Romantico is the novelty of a documentary following a down-to-earth, hard-struggling regular guy. Carmelo’s best friend and musical partner is Arturo, whose drinking problem has landed him in jail repeatedly and strained the relationship between the men.
Your typical documentary would have studied Arturo — the drunken highs and lows, the social flair-ups, the arrests… oh, the drama of a self-destructive soul. What a welcome change of pace it is to see the self-destructive guy on the periphery as the camera sticks with the man who normally would be relegated to the role of responsible, supportive sidekick.
Because the film grew from being a short about musicians into an 80-minute character piece, Romantico has an unhurried, poetic feel. Becker’s camera work is reserved, but precise and effective. When Carmelo and Arturo perform, pay attention to where the camera goes and you’ll see what I mean. Good choices, good choices.
Midway through, the production shifts from San Francisco’s Mission District to Salvatierra when Carmelo returns home to his family. The reunion is happy, but the income drop is frightening. Carmelo continues to make do, caring for his wife, his diabetes-stricken mother and his daughter while trying to raise enough extra to give the 15-year-old girl a quinceañera, even if the coming-out party must be exceedingly modest.
Carmelo sells nieves — a sort of snow cone — around town to make money. Despite his poverty, he often gives the sweet treats to children who don’t have enough cash, remembering his own harsh youth. That’s the kind of man Carmelo Muniz Sanchez is. Romantico allows us to get to know him a little. Lucky us.