- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

If you’ve grown tired of dodging all the Iraq war movies at theaters in recent months, we’ve got good news: Hollywood appears to be taking on a new issue.We’ll give you a couple hints: It’s another hot-button topic that’s been dominating headlines lately, and it’s factored into the plots of 2004’s “Maria Full of Grace,” 2006’s “Fast Food Nation” and last year’s “Babel,” among others.

Yep, the issue is illegal immigration in the U.S., and you can expect to see it explored on the big screen with increasing frequency in coming months.

Now for the bad news: If two fictionalized movies currently playing are any indication, we may be in for a lot of manipulation.

Both “Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)” and “The Visitor” are focused intently on putting a sympathetic human face on illegal immigration. However, in the process of trying to coerce us into rooting for their illegal-immigrant protagonists, they create unconvincing, idealized characters and oversimplify the vastly complex immigration issue.

“Under the Same Moon,” directed by Patricia Riggen and written by Ligiah Villalobos, has been playing to U.S. audiences since mid-March. In the mostly Spanish-language film, Rosario (Kate del Castillo) illegally immigrates to Los Angeles from Mexico so that she can raise money to send back to her family, particularly her son, Carlitos (Adrian Alonso). After four years’ time, the boy misses his mom terribly, and when the grandmother who watches him passes away, he decides to cross the border in search of her.

Ms. Riggen told one reporter that she is “not telling [audiences] to think this way or the other.” Maybe not, but her film sure is.

Rosario could hardly be a more ideal poster child for illegal immigration: stunningly gorgeous, always fashionably dressed (despite her apparent poverty), hard-working, industrious, friendly, chaste, tender with children and moral enough to know that marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card is wrong. What’s not to love about her? Maybe that she’s too perfect?

Then there are the Americans: the college kids who smuggle her son across the border to earn tuition money, the junkie who tries to sell 9-year-old Carlitos to a pimp, the INS agents who violently beat suspected undocumented workers with nightsticks, and the rich “witch” (“Cruella de Vil”) whose house Rosario cleans.

Yes, all of these characters probably have real-life equivalents, but even the staunchest supporters of illegal immigrants’ rights must admit that nothing is this black-and-white. There are good people and bad people from everywhere and in every color, and most of them have a mix of good and bad traits and motives.

Without subtlety or multifaceted characters, “Under the Same Moon” becomes little more than shallow agit-prop preaching to the already converted.

“The Visitor,” written and directed by Tom McCarthy, opens today. While far more nuanced than “Under the Same Moon,” it likewise tries to stack the moral deck.

In this case, the undocumented workers are a Syrian musician, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese jewelry-designer girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira). Both have overstayed their visas by a matter of years and have firmly established lives for themselves in the U.S.

The couple has been duped into renting a Manhattan apartment that they believe is vacant but that really belongs to a WASPy college professor named Walter (Richard Jenkins). He leaves his academic home base in Connecticut one week to deliver a paper in New York City and is startled to discover the squatters. Initially, he kicks them out, but then he has a change of heart that results in a great friendship with Tarek, who teaches him to play the djembe (a West African drum) and causes him to open up after years of being a solitary widower.

When Tarek is busted one afternoon for accidentally hopping a subway turnstile and the cops discover he doesn’t have any papers, he is taken to a detention center that “doesn’t look like a prison” to be deported. The previously stoic Walter passionately leaps to Tarek’s defense, hiring a lawyer, visiting him as much as he can and venting his mounting anger over the country’s immigration laws to the detention center staff.

Like “Under the Same Moon,” the film portrays illegal immigrants as paragons. They are gorgeous, well-dressed, mild-mannered, worldly, educated, hip and creative. Tarek is incredibly compassionate and perpetually wears an incandescent smile, while Zainab is so pious (she and Tarek are both Muslim) that she doesn’t drink. Besides overstaying their visas, they can do no wrong.

Americans, on the other hand, are either cruel, apathetic, ignorant or, in Walter’s case, ineffective even when they do finally find a cause to believe in. In our post-Sept. 11 climate of fear and xenophobia, Tarek, a peace-loving musician originally from the Middle East, is treated as a “criminal” and a “terrorist.” Mr. McCarthy heavy-handedly deploys images of the Statue of Liberty to drive home the hypocrisy he sees in this.

Both “The Visitor” and “Under the Same Moon” answer stereotypes with stereotypes and favor cheap shots over nuanced arguments and fine-grained insights. Their filmmakers forget that it’s impossible to disarm the opposing side by dodging it or caricaturing it; the opponent has to be authentically engaged, as do the supporters.

Myriad films about illegal immigration are on the horizon, including the promising titles “Paraiso Travel,” “Padre Nuestro” and “Crossing Over.” If they want to help audiences really explore the issues, they’ll have to remember that God is in the details, not the sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications.

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