The ballad of Carmelo

Romantico proves documentaries can be gorgeous and soulful

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By the time you read this, a whole lot of filmmakers, publicists, journalists, and miscellaneous affiliates from Los Angeles will have once again descended on Utah for the annual feeding frenzy known as Sundance. Just what the aforementioned feed on isn't always or exactly movies — the original raison d'être can get lost in the general scuffle. Classic old-school festival films — those quiet, starless character dramas and vérité documentaries sans hot-button topic and celebrity endorsement — tend to get elbowed to the back of the crowd by more pushy types.

Such was the case two years ago for Romántico, which finally gets a theatrical release this week. As good as if not better than anything else in Sundance's 2005 American Documentary Competition, it nonetheless attracted no awards and scant interest. Admittedly, a film about undocumented immigrant Mexican musicians in San Francisco didn't sound so compelling next to docs about mentally ill indie rock heroes, death row exonerations, Enron, kick-ass jock paraplegics, clergy sex abuse, and every comedian in the world telling one dirty joke. Plus, there had been a lot of documentaries about undocumented Latin Americans in the States of late — like Iraq (and clergy sex abuse), it's an inevitable subject du jour for nonfiction cinema.

Most similarly themed docs before and since Romántico have had a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, tackling specific issues with activist zeal. Several (Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary and Un Franco, 14 Pesetas among them) have been very good. But despite the concern they share, they're like well-crafted news bulletins, while at core Romántico seems like something else entirely — soulful and poetic, its tone and narrative oddly reminiscent of '40s Italian neorealist classics.

Part of the reason is that it simply looks great. A frequent cinematographer on other directors' projects, Mark Becker shot his own first feature himself. Not only does he have a definite eye, but he also made the deliberate decision to shoot on film (16mm and Super 16) — an approach practically unheard of for a documentary these days. Yeah, yeah, new formats have done a great service in making the so-called seventh art more affordable, immediate, flexible, democratic, and so forth. But anyone who tells you video can look just as rich as film stock is high. It (still) just ain't so.

Though he's since moved to New York City, Becker was living in the Mission District when he became intrigued by Mexican émigré musicians who play for tips in the area's restaurants and on its streets. They form a subterranean "bachelor culture," making enough money to support the wives and children back home they might not see for years on end.

Becker had a short film in mind until he met a protagonist worthy of long-form scrutiny — Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, who serenades diners with familiar tragic love ballads as half of a duo with Arturo Arias. When Sanchez abruptly returned to Mexico for the first time in four years in late 2000, after hearing that his diabetic mother's health had worsened, Becker followed.

Romántico was shot sporadically over a three-and-a-half-year span, time enough to capture dramatic changes in the lives of both Sanchez and Arias. When we first meet them, they're sharing a minuscule flat with two other Mexicans and four Guatemalans who all work at the same car wash. (The number of roommates seems limited only by the amount of floor space on which to sleep.) Our protagonists also log long hours as entertainers, making as much as $50 each on a good night. This might seem a threadbare existence, but it allows Sanchez to support his mom, wife, and two daughters (both preadolescent when he left in 1997) in relative comfort.

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