Distinguished independent filmmaker Robert M. Young and actor Edward James Olmos have collaborated successfully several times, most impressively with the powerful "Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," but they've struck out with "Roosters."
If Milcha Sanchez-Scott's heavily symbolic stage play about a dysfunctional Latino family in the rural Southwest were to have a prayer of working on the screen, she would have had to jettison her many highfalutin, ultra-theatrical, quasi-poetic flights of fancy. They are at war with both the natural-sounding dialogue that her people speak the rest of the time and with the sheer realism that the camera imposes upon both her work and its authentic locale. The result, it is sad to report, draws considerable unintended laughter.
"Roosters," a worthy endeavor, represents a crucial miscalculation on the part of its producers, who failed to recognize that in this instance the playwright was exactly the wrong person to adapt her play to the screen.
However, you can see why Young, Olmos and their colleagues were drawn to the material, in which Olmos plays a figure of destructive machismo that is contrasted with his dreamy, disturbed daughter Angela (Sarah Lassez), a representative of innocence on the brink of puberty.
After serving seven years for manslaughter, Olmos' Gallo Morales--a fiercely proud breeder of fighting cocks--returns to his humble home, where his devoted wife, Juana (Sonia Braga), prays that all will be well. But trouble is already brewing: Olmos' father apparently died fairly recently, leaving his fighting cock to his grandson Hector (Danny Nucci), who hates his father for the hardships his family has endured because of his imprisonment--and who intends that very night to place that cock in a fight that he hopes will yield enough winnings to enable him to leave home.
The tension between father and son, magnified by the father's becoming a target of vengeance in the community for the killing, escalates rapidly, threatening Morales' ability to rescue his daughter, who wears muslin angel wings and hides constantly under the porch, from her morbid and dangerous religious fantasies.
Structurally, the film is a deft adaptation of a play to the screen, with Young and gifted cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos gracefully creating an increasingly ominous atmosphere. Braga and Olmos have immense dignity and passion and a mature sexual magnetism that makes you eager to see them paired again.
As the understandably bitter Hector, Nucci is on target, but Maria Conchita Alonso, an always-wonderful actress, has a thankless role as a despairing, sub-Tennessee Williams-like wayward lady who is Morales' sister. Alonso has the misfortune of having to say to her handsome 20-year-old nephew, in her big drunk scene, that she's been called an "Encyclopedia of Love. Wanna flip a few pages?"
But Alonso gets off easy in comparison to newcomer Lassez, stuck playing an insufferable, impossibly artificial character: Not only do Angela's precious imaginings sound ludicrous but also her voice has nothing of the Latino tinge to it that everyone else's has. For all concerned, "Roosters" might better have been left on the shelf.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some violence, strong language and is overall too intense and mature in its theme for children.
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'Roosters' Edward James Olmos: Gallo Sonia Braga: Juana Maria Conchita Alonso: Chata Danny Nucci: Hector Sarah Lassez: Angela An I.R.S. release of an American Playhouse Theatrical Films and WMG presentation in association with Olmos Productions of a KCET Theatrical Production. Director Robert M. Young. Producers Susan Block-Reiner, Norman I. Cohen. Executive producers Lindsay Law, Hans Brockman, Sandra Schulberg, Justin Ackerman. Screenplay by Milcha Sanchez-Scott; from her play. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editor Arthur Coburn. Costumes Dorothy Amos. Music David Kitay. Production designer J. Rae Fox. Set decorator Helen Britton. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* Exclusively at the UA Coronet Cinema, 10889 Wellworth, Westwood, (310) 475-9444.