Poignancy can be found in the most unexpected places, including Cal’s very own Dwinelle Hall, where the Center for Latin American Studies screened “A Better Life” on February 23rd. The film depicts undocumented gardener Carlos Galindo’s struggle to recover his newly purchased work truck, which serves as his only hope to provide a better life for himself and his 14-year-old son, Luis, in ruthless East L.A. The showing, which packed all 217 seats in the lecture hall and then some (even Chancellor Robert Birgeneau watched!), was followed by a Q&A session with director Chris Weitz, of “About a Boy” and “Twilight: New Moon” fame.
Comparisons to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian-neorealist opus, “Ladri di Biciclette” (“Bicycle Thieves”) are apt – like in “Thieves,” a father-son pairing try to recover a method of transport that is so much more than a simple set of wheels. Yes, there were tears; the woman next to me whipped out a sheaf of tissues halfway through the film to blot at her moistened cheeks, and I’ll admit I shed a manly tear or two. Given the nuance and gravity of his performance, it’s no wonder that Demián Bichir, who plays Carlos Galindo, was a nominee for Best Actor this past Oscar season. Bichir demonstrates the dynamism and resilience of the human character, as does actor José Julián, whose portrayal of Luis Galindo is just as nuanced as that of more experienced actors — a remarkable feat considering this is his first film.
Although the movie itself is largely apolitical, politics are inescapable when it comes to a hot topic like immigration. The Q&A shone in its lighthearted moments — “I didn’t have to worry that any of our characters would glitter in the sunlight,” Weitz joked in a mildly self-deprecating fashion — but also hit to the core of the tougher issues “A Better Life” raised, such as the gang environment, single-parent homes, and the unsustainable nature of the current immigration system. Weitz stated that Bichir’s nomination was particularly useful, as it served as “a pulpit from which to say what we need to say about immigration.” The Cambridge graduate cited his recent involvement in ads against anti-immigration laws, saying, “I went from vampires to being one of the most hated people in Alabama.” If the cheers and standing ovation he received are any indication, the exact opposite is true of Berkeley – “A Better Life” delivered.