The Maldonado Miracle
directed by Salma Hayek
(Showtime, 2003)

Welcome to San Ramos, a burned-out mining town -- make that ex-mining town -- and home to 400 people, five of whom have jobs. Few towns could use a miracle more than San Ramos. Fortunately for its few remaining citizens -- or maybe not -- one is on the way.

The Maldonado Miracle is a quirky little movie, possibly most notable as Salma Hayek's directing debut or for Peter Fonda's portrayal of town priest Father Russell. For those of us who grew up on Easy Rider -- not to mention the Roger Corman/Dennis Hopper motorcycle quickies that preceded it -- it's not always easy to imagine Fonda as a man of the cloth (leather, maybe, but not vestments).

That said, both films revolve around issues of faith: faith in individualism (or, some would say, in better living through chemistry); or faith in a higher power that doesn't always seem to make itself clear, or take the shortest distance between two points.

Take The Maldonado Miracle, for instance. It begins when a supplicant (Soledad St. Hilaire) sees tears of blood streaming from the eyes of Jesus on the crucifix in Sam Ramos' chapel. She's convinced the tears are the blood of the Savior himself, and most of the town -- including Fonda's tone-deaf assistant, Brother Amos (Scott Michael Campbell) -- are more than happy to agree.

But Sheriff Frank Olcott (Dan Merket) isn't so sure. He thinks the blood might have been dripped on the Christ figure by young Jose Maldonado (Eddy Martin), an illegal alien who evaded capture by hiding among some scaffolding above the crucifix. Neither is Father Russell, who's already in turmoil from self doubts about his ability to serve his parishioners. "False hope never did anyone any good," he advises.

But try to tell that to the good -- and not so good -- people of San Ramos: Josephina the supplicant, whose tale of the tears make her an instant media icon; Lyle the sign painter (Bill Sage), who finally has something to paint a sign about; Olcott, whose gas station is now pumping more premium in an hour than it used to in a week; or Stele the salon owner (Christina Cabot), who's depending on her sudden "miraculous" pregnancy to save her marriage to Lyle. The ripple effects even bring in the town's rationalists: restaurateur Maisie (Mare Winningham) and bar owner Cruz (Ruben Blades), both of whom could use a bit of bringing in.

So Miracle quickly becomes an ever-unfolding fable that grows more complex by the minute, expanding from the tale of a young man in search of his father and a Father in search of his faith to ensemble pieces, with each snippet of the action designed to add another mystifying layer to this Brueghel-like jigsaw portrait of faith -- false though it may be -- in action.

It's a scene Hayek paints well, at least visually. Watching the burned-out town come alive with reporters and hucksters and watching people who've been sleepwalking through their presumed end times wake up -- even Olcott's paralyzed mother manages a verse of "If You're Happy & You Know It" -- is tons of fun. Visually, this is a stunning film, from its dusty, bare-bones shots of the town by day to the patchy, glowing nighttime tableaus in the church or Cruz's cafe.

Unfortunately, the text of the film can't keep up with the camerawork. Miracle loses much of its momentum when its actors swap their quirky behavior for dialogue. Much of what they say just sounds wrong, either too literary or too deliberate in its delivery. And there's enough corn in the ending -- or what appears to be the ending -- to keep San Ramos in tortillas until the next miracle arrives.

But let's not quibble about the details. All directors know that turning out a good film is nothing short of a miracle. And as miracles go, Maldonado holds up shockingly well.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 21 August 2004

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