Putting a Human Face on Immigrants

Bichir, Julián in “A Better Life”

Film Friday


Our film group watched A Better Life last Friday, the Chris Weitz film about illegal immigrants (spoiler alert). One can only wish that those legislators passing repressive anti-immigrant laws in Alabama and Arizona and those Republican candidates railing against immigrants would also watch the movie, which puts a human face on immigration. Rigid ideology is monstrous because it refuses to acknowledge the humanity in others, and A Better Life helps counter that.

The film features Carlos (Demian Bichir), an undocumented immigrant in east Los Angeles who is a single father with a teenage son born in America (played by Juan Julián) . He is an exemplary worker who has found a steady job with a landscaper, but, after five years, his boss needs someone to buy his truck and Carlos must either buy it himself (he has a relative who has saved up money) or go back to the uncertainty of living day to day.  He buys it and suddenly finds himself plunged into Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the 1948 Italian neorealist masterpiece about a man who loses the bicycle that he depends upon for his livelihood.  In this case, the truck is stolen.

As in De Sica’s film, father and son bond in a powerful new way as they search for the truck.  Unlike the film, they get the truck back but, as in the film, the ending is no less desperate. At the end of the De Sica film, father and son trudge into the oncoming night with thousands of other unemployed Italian workers.  In A Better Life, Carlos, having been deported, begins the trek across the desert to get back into America and back to his son.

Even though Carlos is exploited by one of his fellow immigrants and victimized by another, one feels sympathy for all the characters. It is the situation itself that is untenable.

I don’t know a lot about immigration policies but I know that we could come up with a better system than we have now—one that allowed more migration across the borders and more paths to citizenship—if we didn’t have political demagogues intent on stirring up white middle class resentment.  President Bush pushed the DREAM act with employers in mind and Obama did so with minorities in mind, but it has been so successfully attacked that former sponsors (like John McCain) now oppose it.  As a result, we have a never-ending string of human tragedies.

Back in the 1980’s, I remember reading articles about how feature film could be an exciting new way to advance the cause of social justice. One of those films was El Norte, a forerunner of A Better Life.  Both films take us into the issues in a way that an essay or even a television special can’t. But to have an impact, such films have to be seen.  Because it deals with painful material, A Better Life, wonderfully humane though it is, may not get much circulation. This post is a plea for you to watch it.

We know undocumented workers are all around us. Here is your chance to meet some of them.

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