And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him (1995): Mexican-American Community

L.A. Indie Film Festival 1995–Focusing on one Mexican-American community, And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him is a sprawling, old-fashioned family saga set in the early 1950s.

Though visually shapeless and narratively amorphous, pic provides a poignant chronicle of poverty, hardship and survival of an ethnic group that only recently began to get its due share in the American cinema. Kino release is sked for a one-week engagement in May, but warm, amiable pic is likely to have larger appeal on video, particularly among Chicano viewers.

Weaved as a dream/memory film, coming-of-age tale centers on 12 year-old Marcos Gonzales (Jose Alcala), a bright, sensitive kid, as he recalls his family experience beginning 1952, when his oldest brother was fighting in Korea.

An opening montage establishes the Gonzales’ transient existence, as they follow the crops through the Midwest each summer and early fall. Their winters and springs are spent in a small Southern Texas town, where they try to have some semblance of normal life, but lack of stability makes it hard for the kids to get a decent education.

Though sharing similar concerns, pic doesn’t achieve the poetry of John Ford’s great Depression movie, The Grapes of Wrath. Still, story is effective at describing the gruesome migrant farm work, which is the major source of the family’s income. And it’s also good in conveying the family’s anguish when it becomes clear that their son is MIA.

Some humor is inserted in depicting the various superstitions that mire the family’s life–the fanatic Catholicism of Marcos’ mother, the powerful role that saints and prayers play in their daily existence. In fact, to change his life, Marcos is willing to make a pact with the devil, which he attempts to do one night in one of the film’s more forceful scenes.

Adapting to the screen Tomas Rivera’s 1971 autobiographical novel, Perez’s script seems an uneven compression of what has become a classic in Chicano literature. It might have been a better strategy to portray selectively a few chapters of the huge saga. This is particularly evident in the film’s latter part, in which melodramatic events (tragic illnesses, sudden deaths, vicious murder of an alien resident) come fast and furious, without registering their due emotional effect.

While Marcos is at the center most of the time, every once in a while helmer drops the kid’s point of view to represent events from other perspectives. A major incident, in which Marcos is forced to become an accomplice to crime, is later inexplicably dropped, without showing what impact it must have left on his psyche.

Technical credits are O.K., especially Virgil Harper’s bright yellow/brown lensing which gives the piece a good period look. However, Susan Heick’s editing is chopped and arbitrary, pushing along from one key event to another, without finding the spots where pause and emotion might be effective. To do justice to the novel, pic should probably have been longer than it is.

Excepting Jose Alcala as Marcos, the other performers are credible, without being commanding, a possible result of the scenes’ brevity and lack of character development in a movie that is mostly plot-driven.

…And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him achieves only sporadically the lyrical beauty of Padre Padrone, another great childhood film about a working-class kid who incredibly grew up to become an intellectual; author Rivera, who began as a migrant worker rose to become Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with Gregory Nava’s three-generational family saga, Mia Familia (also due in May), which is more accomplished and enjoyable.

Credits

Running time: 99 minutes

A Kino International release of a KPBS, Severo Perez Films and American Playhouse production. Produced by Paul Espinosa.
Directed, written by Severo Perez
Screenplay based on Tomas Rivera’s novel of the same title.
Camera (color), Virgil Harper.
Editor, Susan Heick.
Music composed and arranged by Marcos Loya.
Production design, Armin Ganz.
Costume design, Yvonne Cervantes.
Associate producer and casting, Bob Morones.

Cast

Marcos………Jose Alcala
Bartolo……Daniel Valdez
Florentina…Rose Portillo
Joaquin….Marco Rodriguez
Dona Rosa…Lupe Ontiveros
Lupita…..Evelyn Guerrero