Dir. Mark Becker. 2005. N/R. 80mins. Documentary.
One of the perils of documentary filmmaking is that the subject controls the director, and Romántico became a markedly different film from the one it was intended to be. Becker began the movie as a profile of an illegal immigrant in San Francisco, but after only days of shooting (and three years in the U.S.), mariachi singer Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez decided to return to Salvatierra, Mexico, to care for his diabetic mother. Becker then filmed sporadically over the next three years, introducing us to the family that Sánchez originally left Mexico to support.
For Sánchez, it’s a disillusioned homecoming. As difficult as it was to earn a living in the Mission District, he notes that he could sometimes make $100 a night; in Salvatierra it takes him two weeks to earn that much. Becker finds a deep poignancy in scenes of his subject selling ices off a bicycle-driven cart, often generously undercharging children. In a blundering show of solidarity, Sánchez’s San Francisco singing partner eventually joins him.
Romántico is an instructive work on the illusions fostered by the American Dream. Despite having lived in the U.S., Sánchez is dismayed to learn it won’t be easy to get a visa for his return. Becker’s film would have benefited from more structure—especially longer, more probing interviews with Sánchez’s wife and children—but as an act of empathy, Romántico is powerful all the same. (Opens Fri; Landmark’s Century Centre.)—Ben Kenigsberg