Playwright-poet-actor Miguel Pinero was a volatile mix of drug-addicted, streetwise crook and impassioned artist who gave early voice to New York's oppressed Puerto Rican community, celebrating its rich traditional culture while protesting the ravages and injustice it suffered from the twin evils of discrimination and poverty. Pinero is best remembered today as the author of the 1974 play "Short Eyes," a stark prison drama, which he began writing while locked up.
Pinero's brief life--he died of cirrhosis of the liver at 41 in 1988--follows the familiar arc of early hardship, an explosion of celebrity and accelerating self-destruction that makes for dramatic film biographies. Clearly, in making his vibrant and compelling "Pinero," veteran Cuban-born writer-director Leon Ichaso understands how archetypal the trajectory of Pinero's life and career is by making his film a celebration of the writer's talent and his rigorous regard for truth no matter how dire or degrading the circumstances of his daily existence became. In taking this approach, Ichaso moves easily between a black-and-white past and a full-color present, maintaining a pace as buoyant and rhythmic as the beat of the infectious Latin music that accompanies the film. The film's adroit construction deftly integrates the seemingly disparate and contradictory aspects of Pinero's life, which in turn is mirrored in the bravura portrayal of the writer by Benjamin Bratt, in a breakthrough role. On his best day, Pinero was nowhere near as handsome as Bratt, but the actor's good looks reinforce the legend of Pinero's celebrated charisma, the radiant personality that was the glue of the conflicted aspects of his life. That the film and Bratt's portrayal mirror each other to such reverberating, unifying effect provokes the thought that artists like Pinero perhaps inevitably consume themselves as they create.
The root causes of his addiction and criminal activities are obvious enough, considering his circumstances and environment, but this film suggests that not only did he not feel apologetic about any aspect of his life, but apparently made no real attempt to quit drugs. In watching "Pinero" it is distracting to be left to wonder whether he ever tried to break free of substance abuse, and it is one of the few unsatisfying elements in an otherwise outstanding film.
The film is framed by an interview Pinero gives to a reporter following the announcement of the Tony nominations that found "Short Eyes" cited in six categories. Arriving in the U.S. in the mid-1950s with his family at the age of 7--or perhaps it was 4; accounts vary--Pinero was the eldest of five children of a woman (Rita Moreno) whose husband soon left her. (There are intimations that he was the target of sexual abuse by his father, just as there are intimations of Miguel's bisexuality; while the film is upfront about Pinero's addictions and criminal activities, it backs off from his pursuit of male teen-agers.)
Moreno's mother is presented as a positive influence on her son, instilling in him the notion that he did not have to settle for menial work and stressing the value of his cultural heritage. Criminal activities fade as Pinero, who emphatically wrote what he knew, becomes more involved in presenting his poetry in public, which led to his co-founding the landmark Nuyorican Poets Cafe with Rutgers literature professor Miguel Algarin.
The love of a beautiful young actress (Talisa Soto), whom he refuses to marry--an act of kindness on his part even if she doesn't see it that way--the equally steadfast support of the Public Theater's Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) and the loving but always forthright friendship of Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), however, do nothing to stop his self-destruction by drugs and alcohol.
The casting of Bratt as Pinero is an instance of the right role at the right time. By now Bratt has established himself in a wide variety of roles while avoiding becoming limited to Latino parts--his mother is of Peruvian descent. He has the professional experience and the inner resources to bring Pinero alive in all his conflicts and contradictions and to emerge a full-fledged star in the process. In this most important step up in his film career, Bratt has been surrounded by the best in Moreno, Esposito and Patinkin.
Moreno doesn't have lots of screen time, but her indomitable presence permeates the entire film. She has no problem looking half her age when the script requires it, and there is an enchanting moment when she's teaching the young Miguel how to dance on the roof of their apartment buildings. Indeed, Pinero never seems so free as when he's reciting his poetry on rooftops. Soto provides the film with a strong, intelligent and lovely leading lady, and there's staunch support from Nelson Vasquez, Michael Irby, Michael Wright and Robert Klein, among many others.
Ichaso, who launched his career with the infectious and wry 1979 "El Super," has strong allies in cinematographer Claudio Chea and editor David Tedeschi in bringing an easy, naturalistic flow to a film that brims with a sense of immediacy yet possesses a mosaic-like structural intricacy.
MPAA rating: R, for drug use, strong language and sexuality. Times guidelines: strong adult themes and situations.
Benjamin Bratt...Miguel Pinero
Giancarlo Esposito...Miguel Algarin
Rita Moreno...Miguel's mother
Mandy Patinkin...Joseph Papp
A Miramax presentation of a Greenestreet Films/Lower East Side Films production. Writer-director Leon Ichaso. Producers John Penotti, Fisher Stevens, Tim Williams. Executive producer Brad Yonover. Co-executive producers John Leguizamo, Cathy DeMarco. Cinematographer Claudio Chea. Editor David Tedeschi. Costumes Sandra Hernandez. Production designer Sharon Lomofsky. Art director Timothy Whidbee. Set decorator Susan Ogu. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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