Miraculous masa cooks up a corny family comedy
Directed by Judy Hecht Dumontet
Cast: José Zúñiga, Miguel Sandoval, Lupe Onitveros, George Lopez, Olivia Hussey
The other shot-in-New-Mexico feature hitting theaters this weekend is a decidedly lower profile, lower budget affair than Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah (see the other film review in this issue). Filmed in 2001 and finally earning itself an art house release, Tortilla Heaven is a more markedly “New Mexico” film, a broadly comic morality play about small-town Southwest life.
Set in the tiny town of Falfúrrias, N.M., (actually shot in Dixon, N.M.) the film concentrates on Isidor (José Zúñiga, “CSI”), the owner and proprietor of the only restaurant in town. Isidor’s homespun culinary creations are the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, with no paved road leading to Falfúrrias, Isidor’s restaurant—the titular Tortilla Heaven—remains a hidden gem. One fateful day, however, the town is visited by a miracle of the most New Mexican sort. While ditching church to prepare food, Isidor cooks up a batch of tortillas, one of which bears the unmistakable mug of Jesus Christ himself.
Immediately, the townsfolk descend on Isidor’s restaurant, demanding to see the starchy holy relic. Sensing an opportunity, Isidor charges three bucks a glance and is soon raking in the dough. Caught up in the religious fervor, the townsfolk start attributing all sorts of miracles to the presence of the tortilla: A broken-down pickup truck suddenly starts, a seemingly dead pig comes back to life, a wheelchair-bound boy is diagnosed with a simple hernia. Where will all this lead?
The film proceeds with mucho wackiness. We’ve got a singing town drunk, a horny grandmother and a pig who wanders into church to drink from the holy fount! Oh my, the things that do happen in small town America. In exploring the effect the miracle of the tortilla has on Falfúrrias’ residents, we get to meet all sorts of colorful characters. There’s the crazy nudist “witch” who talks to her cows (Olivia Hussey, still impressively naked at 56), the teenager (Alexis Cruz, “Shark”) who dreams of becoming an oceanographer and the small-town sheriff (comedian George Lopez) whose crimefighting skills are about as taxed as Andy Griffith’s.
On a technical level, Tortilla Heaven is impressive. The cinematography is topnotch, reveling in the sort of rich blues and reds that only New Mexico can provide. The editing is equally sharp, keeping the lighthearted comedy antics moving at a rapid pace. The script, however, is pure cornpone parable—or in this case, wholesale hominy homily.
Once everyone is convinced of the tortilla’s holy powers, a transparently devilish city slicker (Miguel Sandoval, “Medium”) shows up to tempt the locals with Faustian promises of fame and fortune. (Honestly, the guy is just one plastic pitchfork short of a Halloween costume.) Eventually, all of the townsfolk are consumed by greed and are signing away their souls to produce Jesus tortilla T-shirts, coffee mugs and various other gewgaws. Even the pastor of the local church gets into the materialism of it all, assembling the world’s largest collection of wooden saints. In the end, it’s up to church-shunning heathen Isidor to set things right and save the day.
As tidy moral messages go, Tortilla Heaven doesn’t deliver a very subtle one: Greed bad, family good. The comedy is equally broad, perfectly willing to sacrifice realism for a good pratfall. We are to believe, for example, that Isidor is a fantastic cook—yet the opening sequence finds him comically unable to make a simple tortilla. Each and every joke is stretched to the breaking point, emphasized with wacky music and punched up with hammy reaction shots from all involved. The only thing missing is a laugh track.
Despite its easy, cheesy, crowd-pleasey nature, the film never runs short on effort. The cast is staffed with likable character actors, and they do everything they can with their small-town caricatures. Lupe Ontiveros from “Desperate Housewives” and the always-welcome Irene Bedard (Smoke Signals) are some of the other faces you’re likely to recognize. It’s clear Tortilla Heaven is a labor of love on the part of all involved. It’s the kind of film you want to like. It’s quaint and inoffensive, and your grandmother will probably think it’s cute. But the results are a half-baked satire—more of an amusing snack food than a nutritious family meal.
Tortilla Heaven will have its premiere screening at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW) on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. Director Judy Hecht Dumontet will be on hand for a post-film Q&A. This screening is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, however, and passes are available by calling 246-2261. The film will open for a limited three-night run at the Guild Cinema (3405 Central NE) Sept. 21-23.