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Friday, October 6, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Santitos' takes heavy story and makes light comedy

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

XXX "Santitos," with Dolores Heredia, Fernando Torre Lapham, Alberto Estrella. Directed by Alejandro Springall, from a screenplay by Maria Amparo Escandon, based on Escandon's novel. 95 minutes. Broadway Market. "R" - Restricted for partial nudity and adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles.

By all rights, "Santitos," a 1997 Mexican film from first-time director Alejandro Springall, shouldn't be a light comedy.

Dolores Heredia plays Esperanza, a beautiful young widow whose teenage daughter, Blanca, dies of a viral infection while undergoing a tonsillectomy. Because the death is so sudden, because Esperanza is not allowed to see the body, and because the doctor inexplicably disappears the next day, Esperanza cannot accept her daughter's death.

She tries digging up the grave. Convinced that Blanca has been kidnapped and sold into prostitution, she gets a job as a cleaning woman at a brothel, smelling the sheets for signs of her daughter. Eventually she travels to Tijuana, where she herself becomes a prostitute. There's an Orpheus quality to all of this: Esperanza knowingly sinks into hell to bring back a loved one.

This is a light comedy?

It is, and it works.

Esperanza's guiding force through her journey is her sometimes-quirky religious conviction. Post-funeral, she sees the image of St. Jude, "my saint of desperate causes," in the grime of her oven window.

She shares this news with Padre Salvador (Fernando Torre Lapham), telling him "Thank God I ran out of Easy-Off."

Much of the comedy is in the interplay between the helter-skelter but determined convictions of Esperanza, and the slow, perplexed response of Padre Salvador, who would just as soon talk about the soaps or the latest gossip in the tabloid newspapers.

"Stay out of trouble," he cautions her, which, of course, is the movie's invitation to get her into trouble.

St. Jude visits again. Esperanza prays to St. Anthony, "who can find a grain of sugar in the desert," and St. Michael, the archangel. While trying to excavate her daughter's grave during a thunderstorm, she exclaims, "Saint Isidro, stop this rain!"

The only response is the silence of other plaster saints atop other gravestones, but even this image is ambiguous. They could just as easily be watching over her - protecting her - as ignoring her.

"Santitos," which was a favorite at 1999's Sundance and Seattle International Film festivals, has been pinned with the "magic realism" label of such films as "Like Water for Chocolate," but the label is inaccurate.

There are miracles in "Santitos," yes, but they may be only in Esperanza's mind, which doesn't make them any less real or necessary to Esperanza.

She grasps at any sign, any clue, and then tromps off in that direction.

Eventually she winds up in Los Angeles (City of Angels), where she witnesses a wrestling match between The Angel of Justice (the hero) and The Border Patrol (the heel).

The viewer is left thinking, "What could possibly happen next?" It's a nice thought to have. With most Hollywood films, we know exactly what's going to happen next.

The filmmakers don't pretty up the world, just our response to its tragedies and dangers. They also respect Esperanza enough not to ignore the travails she goes through.

There are emotional consequences, just as there were emotional consequences in Boaz Yakin's 1994 film "Fresh," about a boy who goes through hell to rescue his older sister.

All of this requires a delicate touch, which director Springall provides, and a sympathetic protagonist, which is where Dolores Heredia comes in.

From the opening frames, there is a desperation in her innocent eyes - but not so much desperation that comedy isn't allowed to seep in.

She plays innocent straight woman to the world's horrific comedy, but in the end she's the one who wins (even when she loses).

Seeing a sign from one of her saints, a lovely joy breaks out over her already-lovely face. It's been a long time since I've been so smitten at the movies.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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