Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 12, 2003 12:48 pm 
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Powerful if rough

When I got to Manito in the course of my own personal summer New York film festival I thought: This is going to be the best movie yet, the one that will matter, something more real and more memorable than the others. And in a way it was. But the digital video looked pretty ugly (my tolerance for DV is going the way of my tolerance for email ‘spam’), and Manito, dealing with more complex material, just isn’t as smoothly carried off as Raising Victor Vargas either. Comparisons are odious, but this one seems inevitable: the material has too many points in common. It isn’t just that Victor Vargas is sweeter, though it admittedly is. Most of the people in Manito are relatively unappealing in some ways and somewhat crudely sketched in. There is some amateurish editing and camerawork, notably jarring, unnecessary zooms. And the relentlessly grim finale twists what really could have been a warm little social portrait – yes, like Victor Vargas – into a sort of grimly expressionistic morality tale. And that's okay. It's just that the rough edges show more.

There's roughness, but there's also much that’s vivid and authentic-feeling in Manito. There are essentially three generations here: two sons, Manny Moreno (Leo Manaya), graduating from high school and a scholarship winner; his ex-con older brother, the muscular and charismatic if somewhat brutish Junior (Franky G); their absentee father whom Junior hates because he went to jail because of his drug dealing; and the young men’s grandfather, a dapper retiree who dresses up and goes to a whorehouse in an early scene.

Junior is married and a painting contractor living a straight life, but most of all he’s a liar and a womanizer. Today is the celebration for Manny’s graduation and he’s going to college, the first in his family to do so. It’s like a bar mitzvah or wedding. (Is this the way they really do things in Spanish Harlem? What about a prom?) Their father tries to send a giant grinder from his (cover) food shop to the celebration. Junior grabs it and dumps it back in the bodega with threatening words.

We see Junior first at home getting ready to go off on a job. He yells at his wife. Then we see Manny at an outdoor playground inviting a girl (who has a child) to his celebration. She says she can’t come, but she later surprises him by appearing, and they dance together the rest of the evening. Manny’s father gets drunk at a bar where the bartender insults him and describes his bad behavior and drug dealing elliptically in front of him to another customer. Drunk, the father walks in on Manny’s celebration just as Junior is speaking his toast to Manny (one of many: too many, though they’re cunningly condensed), and Junior breaks off his eulogy to eject their father. In the midst of the celebratory mood, there is bad blood.

Ugly and nice constantly alternate in Manito. There’s a nice early scene outside school among Manny’s male pals, who chat and boast about the celebration and about women, which has some of the colorful raw humor of Victor Vargas. But after a brief scene at high school, inconsequential, but sweet, the attention switches to Junior going to the job at a woman’s house he’s supposed to paint. It’s all gone wrong. His employees have quit and he has to bring a bunch of illegal Mexican workers dressed as busboys, and he tells the woman outrageous lies to explain them and his two-hour lateness. Then he is seen having noisy sex upstairs with the woman homeowner. It’s hard to see how this fits with Manny’s story, but this is the portrait of a family, and nothing is prettied up.

Manny is a nice boy with a big friendly grin who’s such a good student (not that he seems all that smart to look at) that he’s got a scholarship to Syracuse.

Manny insists on accompanying his date home after the party, and this involves a long subway ride (unlike Victor Vargas where everybody lives in the same barrio). During this trip they are menaced by two big toughs who grab the envelope full of money the guests have awarded to Manny to send him on his way. The girl takes out a can of Mace and sprays the guys and she and Manny run off in the car toward her house, the thugs in hot pursuit.

They get in just in time, chased all the way by the toughs; Manny got the money back. They’re greeted by the girl’s screaming mother, who’s terrified and angry. The girl kisses Manny (a scene that has none of the magic of the kisses in Victor Vargas) and then says she has something she wants to give him.

It’s a pistol. He acts shocked, and doesn’t want it, but he takes it. The next thing we learn is that Manny’s in jail for shooting one of the toughs in the head. Junior sees about bail. There’s a wordless scene where the family (minus the dad) visits Manny in a jail area – more like a waiting room, though, all of them looking very down at the mouth. The celebratory mood is over, big time.

In the final sequence Junior in desperation goes to their father to ask for the $40,000 for the bail. There is a slow visual of him heading to the father’s house, all tinted in red, which is amateurish and unnecessary. Finally Junior gets in and absolutely begs for the money, but his father coldly refuses.

Here we have two unsavory characters in mortal combat. What happens is that Junior unwittingly or unintentionally kills his father. If this were a gangster film a la James Gray’s haunting The Yards or the Godfather trilogy, it would have the same overtones of tragedy it has here, but it couldn’t easily be the finale; here, it is, and the effect is nasty, brutish, and short – and extremely fatalistic.

Manny’s story gets somewhat slighted by this sad turn of events and the way the story leans toward Junior; much of the editing seems unbalanced in the same way. One wonders what Scorsese might say: he might like this material, which is, in many ways, strong and vivid stuff. From the first sequence there is a vérité quality that seems quite authentic, even though the camerawork and editing are too clumsy at times to disappear into the fabric of the piece. Manito is cruder than one might expect, and the ending somehow doesn’t seem right, but I will still remember this as one of the freshest movies I saw in New York, or anywhere, this year.

Manito, 78 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2002; other fetivals. . US theatrical debut 13 June 2003 (limited). Seen at The Screening Room, 54 Varick Street, New York City, July 3, 2003.]

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