The subject of any John Sayles film, no matter what the specific topic, is the complexity of life. And so it is with CASA DE LOS BABYS, a film that ranks among his best efforts.
It’s a film of beautifully intertwined stories all surrounding a group of six American women who have come to an unnamed South American country in order to adopt children. In residence at the same hotel, while the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly and expensively on, they bond in ways that would not have been possible outside this confined and artificial environment. Cliques form and gossip takes the edge off the waiting as Sayles gives us a microcosm of the United States as channeled through the maternal drive. Some of the women are rich, some are just getting by, and they’re all getting antsy to get on with motherhood. Their reasons for wanting a child are as diverse as they are, some want a trophy, some want a bandage for a bad marriage, some want to nurture, some want to fill an emotional hole. As with the non-adoptive route to motherhood, some are better suited to the job than others with the kid in question having to take what he or she gets. The ensemble cast, Marcia Gay Hardin, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Kelly Lynch, Maggie Gyllenhall, and Rita Moreno deliver unstudied performances of great power and with all the layered nuance of Sayles’ story as a whole. Hannah, in particular, finds a gravitas heretofore unseen in a monologue that combines unendurable tragedy with improbable hope.
Sayles has peopled the script with characters representing the disparate arguments for and against this baby drain to the north. The owner of the hotel, Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), is there to make a buck off the rich Americans. Her son, a failed political activist, one wrong word away from a prison sentence, rails against the cultural imperialism of Americans buying the children of the poor. The street kids that no one wants and an unemployed contractor make the economic argument of a better life anywhere but there, it’s the same message, only verbalized, that the nurse in the adoption nursery coos to her charges as they await their new lives. And that’s when Sayles throws a curve ball with the fifteen-year-old upper class mother-to-be whose own mother is railroading her into giving her baby up for adoption to the Americans, not for the kid’s well-being, but because of what the neighbors will say if she keeps it.
The genius of Sayles is that he can keep the politics front and center while still maintaining a fierce humanity at the core. There is no better example than when Eileen (Lynch), an Irish woman married to an American, talks to a hotel maid (Vanessa Martinez) about coming from a large family, and then spilling her pent-up yearning into an elaborate fantasy of what it will be like to have a daughter. The maid, barely more than a child herself who gave her own daughter up years before to spare her a life of poverty, responds by telling Eileen about the life she hopes her daughter has. Neither speaks the other’s language and yet, in a moment of perfect understanding of what the other feels, Sayles has dissected the essence of what it means to be a mother. Even the venal Senora Munoz has a moment when she reveals the reasons for what she does, and without meaning to, how it all comes down to family.
The only thing coming close to a flaw in CASA DE LOS BABYS is a montage near the end that cross cuts between the penniless contractor watching numbers come up on the national lottery while desperately clutching his ticket, an television astrologer in a sparkly gold jacket assuring everyone watching that life offers endless possibilities, and one of the street kids, huffing his evening into blissful oblivion and wondering to one in particular where he will sleep that night. There is a poetry to the visuals of the montage, but it is heavy-handed in its symbolism, especially in contrast to the subtleness to be found in the rest of the film. Yet even there, with the closing shot that sums up the whole crap shoot that life really is, Sayles hits on the simultaneous unfairness and wonder of it all in a moment that will take your breath away.