May 12, 1995 in Features, Seven

A Story Of Cuban Immigrants, ‘Perez Family’ Transcends Its Plot

Dan Webster Staff Writer

What a strange concoction of parts “The Perez Family” is. And, ultimately, how satisfyingly it all fits together.

Based on a novel by Christine Bell, “The Perez Family” tells the story of a group of people profoundly affected by the Cuban revolution of 1960.

Some got away. Carmela (Anjelica Huston), her daughter Teresa (Trini Alvarado) and baby brother Angel (Diego Wallraff) made a new life for themselves in Miami.

Some did not. Carmela’s husband Juan Raul (Alfred Molina), a sugar cane plantation owner, offended the Castro regime and was imprisoned.

When the film opens, it is 1980 and Castro has opened his prisons once again. Among those headed for the United States are Juan Raul and a spirited woman (Marisa Tomei) whose greatest desire is to bed down that symbol of American culture, John Wayne. As she says, “I am like Cuba: Used by many, conquered by none.”

There is nothing ordinary about Dottie Perez, even her last name.

Which is all she has in common with Juan Raul. But when a mixup leaves Carmela believing that Juan Raul missed the trip, and Juan Raul believing that his wife of 20 years has forgotten him, Dottie conceives a plan: Should Juan Raul consent to join forces with her, posing as her “husband,” they would have a better chance at attracting a sponsor. Then they could leave U.S. custody.

Pretty soon, the concocted Perez family attracts a son (Jose Felipe Padron) and a grandfather, “Papi” (Lazaro Perez). And a sponsor. And, gradually, a genuine feeling of togetherness.

Meanwhile, Carmela is attracted to, and being courted by, a policeman (Chazz Palminteri).

For both sides of the Perez family, disillusioned by a two-decade wait for a dream that might never come, love begins to bloom. Separately and for real.

The question: What will happen next?

Not much that isn’t expected. In lesser hands, the storyline to “The Perez Family” would be just another pedestrian romantic comedy with stereotypes that, at best, would be played as precious. Yet in the hands of Mira Nair, the East Indian director of such films as “Salaam Bombay!” and “Mississippi Masala,” the film transcends its source.

Through its naturalistic lighting, a camera that flows through the streets of Miami (and those of Puerto Rico that pass for Havana) with the eyes of a nosy fly and editing that combines lush visuals with alluring Cuban rhythms, “The Perez Family” reflects the sense of life that its characters so desperately grasp for.

The actors get carried along by the film’s narrative power. Molina, the English-born actor, has a soulful gaze that speaks of smoldering sensuality and perfect comic timing. “Elvis is dead?” he asks. Then, with a sad shake of his head, he adds, “So many assassinations.”

He, at least, has Latino roots: Huston and Tomei are about as Cuban as Lucille Ball. But, Oscar winners both, they manage to keep up. And Tomei, despite a spotty accent (part Charo, part Ricky Ricardo), manages to convey the vulnerability that is at the heart of Dottie’s character.

Most of the others are merely furniture, with Palminteri given little to do and Wallraff irritating as the film’s sole cartoon.

In the end, though, it is Nair’s camera that casts a spell, overcoming the lesser performances and more silly, magically realistic touches (a broken heart actually bleeding). In the end, there is real passion behind Juan Raul’s insistence that the true destiny of his family, all of his family, is to “love desperately.”

And well.

xxxx “The Perez Family” *** Location: Magic Lantern and Newport Highway cinemas Credits: Directed by Mira Nair, starring Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Anjelica Huston and Chazz Palminteri Running time: 1:52 Rated: R

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