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Perhaps its producers thought billing it as a comedy would be a bigger draw – believing, maybe, that people prefer to laugh than to think, or to identify, or to care. But “The Milagro Beanfield War,” directed by Robert Redford, is most of all a sweet movie, full of adorable characters happy to shoot old pistols when they have to.
It’s not the Old West. It’s Old New Mexico, where, as in so many other places, a way of life is threatened by a newer, more destructive, more expensive one. The townspeople don’t really want the land where they and their children grew up to turn into to tee boxes and condos.
Call it nostalgia, tradition, respect for the land, whatever you want – they’re willing to make their last stand for it.
One man in particular: Joe Mondragon (a familiar surname in these parts), played by Chick Vennera, doesn’t know at first whether he’s making a statement or just planting beans. As he says – I’m paraphrasing – “No one’s going to care about one lousy beanfield.”
Most days, in most places, he’d be spot on. But he’s using the developers’ water supply and he’s planting on the proposed 13th green.
Land use issues, class issues – most of Milagro’s residents are poor – and race issues – most of Milagro’s residents are Latino – bump bull-horns with issues of culture and religion, angels and sociology, good cops and bad ones. The film is fat with conflict, but none of it is simplified or caricatured. Every opponent has actual human qualities, from doubt to irrationality to self-contradiction.
Even the baddest cop of them all exhibits this pleasantly realistic cauldron of attributes. Christopher Walken plays Kyril Montana, everybody’s enemy, and at first he appears to have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
He’s got the tight lips, the unexplained and all-encompassing anger, the complete lack of or need for friends.
But – and here’s something of a spoiler – by the end, even he cracks. He likes. He laughs. Maybe that’s why Hollywood calls this a comedy – because Christopher Walken smiles.
Walken is outlandishly terrific, but Richard Bradford plays the heart of the movie. His character, Ladd Devine, communes with beer-drinking saints, the savvy dead, a stubborn porker, even a college student who talks too loudly about stuff he doesn’t understand.
I don’t think viewers could watch this movie and not feel like they know this fluff-headed, limping old lunatic.
He’s a little like everyone’s grandpa and he’s a piece, maybe the oldest and most becoming piece, of each of our souls.
The pace of “The Milagro Beanfield War” is slow and easy, very pre-Blackberry and Twitter. It takes a few minutes to adjust to if you’re like me and are used to button-pushing through broadband-speed windows of entertainment. But this one’s well worth the patient watch.
I enjoyed this war movie, despite the brief violence against a pig and a modicum of stone-throwing at the afore mentioned college student.
The Mesa Public Library Free Film Series will show “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs meeting room theater.
Next up in the series is “Contact” (1997) on July 30 and a collection of short films on Sept. 3. As part of the library’s tribute to Los Alamos’ 60th anniversary year-long celebration, each film in this season’s series was shot in New Mexico. So far, we’ve seen one from each decade, from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Films are presented free of charge thanks in large part to donations from the Friends of the Library. The series is co-sponsored by the Los Alamos Arts Council.
Kelly Dolejsi is a member of the Los Alamos Arts Council.