Benjamin Bratt has come a long way since Law and Order. Graduating from stupid gossip column fodder as one of Julia Roberts’ many boyfriends to distinguished roles in Piñero and Traffic, he has carved a distinguished career as an actor of integrity and vision. But none of his achievements have been more honest, passionate or remarkable than his first starring role for the new production company he has formed with his brother Peter, a talented new director who is going places. The movie is called La Mission, and it is well worth seeing for a variety of aspects, all of them striking, poignant and memorable.
Set in the colorful Mission District in San Francisco, in which the Bratts grew up (Peter still lives there; Benjamin has moved to a duller but more upscale sign of movie-star arrival, Hollywood), La Mission focuses on a rigid Latino symbol of old-world machismo named Che Rivera, played with so much testosterone by Mr. Bratt that even his painted-on tattoos threaten to jump right off his abs and kick you in the groin. Che is an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who works as a San Francisco bus driver; he has a special talent for making over low-riding Chevy convertibles equipped with hydraulic lifts, modified suspensions and V-8 engines, and with elaborately painted symbols of Catholic saints on their trunks. Che’s gaudy, elaborately decorated lowriders are so famous in the Mission that they form annual parades. Everybody respects Che for his tough-guy street smarts and fears him for his violent temper. Amid the African drums, Brazilian sambas, Buddhist chants and Mexican taquerías that make the Mission a mecca of immigrant culture, Che is an icon.
But Che has a problem no man of muscle and steel can easily survive. Che’s only son, Jes, whom he raised from a baby and practically worships with a pride he’s too embarrassed to show, harbors a secret he’s afraid to tell his father. Jes (the handsome and excellent Jeremy Ray Valdez) is gay. Worse still, he’s in love with a white boy and is a habitual customer in the Castro’s gay bars. Never mind that Jes is smart, kind, warm, humane and the first ethnic product of the neighborhood to win a scholarship to UCLA. A homosexual son goes against every tradition Che believes in. Believing God is getting revenge for all the bad things he’s done by giving him a “defective,” Che beats up his son, throws him out of the house and loses the only thing he loves. His tough poker pals from the hood tell him they couldn’t care less. Che retorts that if Jes were their son, they’d feel the same kind of shame and disgust. The same problem of gay sons facing the pain of coming out to macho fathers with blinders on exists in Latino families just as it does in other cultures. But to Che, the shock and disappointment is symbolic of an even greater change—the way nothing in his once Catholic neighborhood is the same. The Mission has become a gumbo of graffiti, designer boutiques and singles bars. The more it evolves, the more Che denounces the word “progress.” Now gentrification has arrived at his own doorstep, and rage is reaching the point of self-destruction.
There’s something touching about watching the estranged father and son struggle to find newfound mutual compassion. These are the kinds of polarized blacks and Latinos who turned out in record percentages to vote for Barack Obama and against the legalization of gay marriage in the state of California. Now change is in their face whether they like it or not. When Jes becomes the innocent victim of homophobic aggression from one of his own people, Che is forced to examine the shadows of his own heart. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to smash the pomegranate-red Impala he’s been working on for his son’s graduation, which he refuses to attend.
La Mission, carefully directed by Peter Bratt and beautifully photographed by award-winning cinematographer Hiro Narita (Never Cry Wolf), explores the human side of a culture we know almost nothing about, in a world usually exploited on film to depict drugs and danger. This one emphasizes family and traditions instead of poverty and gang wars. I won’t give away the wrenching final scene, or reveal how everything turns out for the tortured people involved, but every aspect of their nature is meticulously illuminated, with Mr. Bratt giving an intense, multilayered performance as a man who must learn there is more to masculinity than a pair of fists. Observing the phases both father and son endure as they try to forgive and prioritize in order to survive makes La Mission a poignant and unusual film, one that you won’t soon forget.
Running time 117 minutes
Written and Directed by Peter Bratt
Starring Benjamin Bratt, Jeremy Ray Valdex
3 Eyeballs out of 4