For those keeping score at home, Midaq Alley has taken home more awards than any other movie in the history of Mexican cinema. This bustlingly profane Spanish-language adaptation of Egyptian Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfuz’s 1947 novel El Callejón de los Milagros (The Alley of the Miracles) appears not to have ventured too far off the festival circuit when it made its American debut in 1995. Now the film will finally hold its San Diego premier, starting Friday at the Digital Gym.
The multi-character narrative comes split into four consecutive chapters, with the individual threads all commencing at one location, at the same point in time, and with the identical flip and clack of a single domino. The first three segments are named for the characters whose stories they cover, while the concluding passage asthmatically scrambles to tie up more loose ends than the bordello that houses the film’s bloody climax.
We begin with Rutilio (Ernesto Gomez Cruz), known to friends and clientele alike as Don Ru, the owner and operator of the profitable watering hole that plays host to the normally friendly game of bones. (Pay close attention to the players: you're about to spend 144 minutes with them.)
All of the major male characters are introduced in the opening game, along with several of what will amount to running subplots. That’s Ubaldo, the book shop owner behind the Coke bottle specs, slowly going blind from sampling his own stock, much of which he has committed to memory (and in low-light levels). Off to the side of the game sits Rutilio’s son Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal) with his friend Abel (Bruno Bichir), discussing the possibility of illegal entry into the United States. But for the time being, let’s concentrate on Rutilio. After all, it’s his name that brands the segment.
During the opening game — and for reasons that will soon be made clear — the tone turns accusatory, as a surly Don Ru begins to publicly bombard his son with a slew of homophobic slurs. At its best, Jorge Fons’ direction (misdirection?) takes delight in sidetracking audience expectations with abrupt behavioral shifts designed to dash traditional character motivation.
Chava and his friend flee the cantina. On the bustling sidewalk (and with Ru well out of eyeshot) Chava slides an earring into his left lobe while Abel slings an arm around his mate’s shoulder. Was dad’s gaydar flashing red, or are these two straight friends secure enough in their masculinity that appearance be damned?
Don Ru is emotionally secluded enough from his from wife that the occasion of their 30th anniversary slips his mind. No matter. The next morning finds a smile on his face and a spring in his step, but don’t credit the commemorative sex his wife talked him into. The same virulent homophobe who not more than 12 hours earlier excoriated his son is now in a high-end men’s clothing boutique, putting the make on young salesman Jimmy (Esteban Soberanes).
It almost feels like a drama, but perception of the overall production may begin to alter not long after Chava walks in on Daddy and his lover playing full-frontal rub-a-dub in the steam room. Taking matters into his own hands, Chava beats dad’s inamorato within an inch of his life. He and Abel make a run for the border, and if the investigation of the crime or Jimmy’s whereabouts gets covered in the book, that part of the story clearly wasn’t important enough to make the movie’s final cut. Whatever chances this had of being considered serious drama are quickly washed away by a sea of soap bubbles. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I never once looked at my watch or had the urge to hit the scan button.
Still, the reason Midaq Alley will live on for generations as a historical footnote has more to do with a pristine Salma Hayek than the overall pace and quality of the production. A starring role on a telenovela made her an overnight sensation on Mexican television by the time she hit 23. Allison Anders provided Hayek entry into the American marketplace with a small role in Mi Vida Loca. That was followed by the romantic lead in the Roadracers remake that was part of Showtime’s innovative Rebel Highway series. (To date, it remains Robert Rodriguez’s finest hour.) Following her mother’s advice to never fall in love with a stranger because they are just as much work, Alma (Hayek) transforms from a teenager eager to lose her virginity into a high-priced courtesan. Her breakout performance is as assured a calling card as any left on film.
All of the trusted movie sites categorize this as a drama, but if that’s the case, why did I spend so much of the running time dabbing tears of laughter? This is a howler of a good time. Never having read the original source material, I can only assume that screenwriter Vicente Leñero took from Mahfouz’s novel all that which had the makings of a great telenovela. Some of my fondest movie-viewing memories were cemented on snowbound Sunday mornings spent scrutinizing epic melodramas on a disproportionately puny and absurd 25-inch box. Humidity replaced frigidity, but nothing short of an added hour of commercial interruptions could have added a more nostalgic glow to last Sunday’s rise-and-shine introduction to Midaq Alley.