Sunday, June 25, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

If I am in my car, I am almost certainly listening to public radio. We live in a place where thoughtful stories and interviews from NPR, PRI, APR, or BBC are available on one local station or another almost all the time. Recently I heard a few minutes near the end of this conversation with Salma Hayek.

We had heard a little about Hayek's latest film, in which she is an ordinary, working person who finds herself at a small dinner party with economically powerful -- ruthless, even -- guests in the home of one of her massage/reiki clients. This is the sort of film that we would usually just put on our list for eventual release online, but in part because of the interview, I joined Pam in wanting to catch it in the theater. During travel to visit family in Maryland, we did just that.
Beatriz at Dinner
She was invited but not welcome
This film can be seen as a sort of sequel to the T.C. Boyle novel Tortilla Curtain, which treats very similar tensions between people who are physically proximate but socially distant.

It is different in a couple of key ways. Most important is that the story brings its disparate characters into even more direct -- even personal -- contact with each other. This is a story of conversation, and as the most privileged character (Doug Strutt, played with glee by John Lithgow) sometimes steers the conversation with Hayek's Beatriz toward interrogation, she is increasingly emboldened to do the same. Not used to having his actions and values questioned, the tension between the two escalates uncomfortably.

A second key difference is that although both stories involve characters on opposite sides of racial and economic divides, the economic dichotomy is a bit different. If Boyle's wealthy were "one percenters" or even "1/10 percenters," Doug and his pals represent the billionaire class and their allies. And although Beatriz clearly comes from outside the gate, she is a professional with her own business. Though modest in the context of the home where the dinner takes place, her status is clearly different from the housekeeper played by Soledad St. Hilaire.

Bechdel

Written by Michael White and directed by Miguel Arteta, Beatriz at Dinner passes the Bechdel Test, many times over. The greatest fireworks are between Beatriz and Doug, and these interactions bring out the most timely (2017) political lessons. But the most important social lessons play out in the interactions between Beatriz and homeowner Cathy (played by Bostonian Connie Britton), who sees herself as both an admirer and friend of Beatriz.

When reviewing the IMDb page for the film, I noticed an interesting Bechdel connection, which cannot have been accidental. A film passes the Bechdel test only if a conversation takes place between two female characters who have names, and if that conversation is about something other than a man. A surprising number of films do not pass this simple test. Beatriz has conversations with all of the named characters, male and female. But other than herself, only the wealthy characters have names, and only Doug Strutt has a surname. The housekeeper in this film is no different than those in any of the films to which Hayek refers in her radio interview.

Environmental Geography

This film is so richly layered with respect to social and economic geography that I almost forgot to mention two threads of the story that are germane to the title of this blog. One is the phenomenon of wealthy trophy hunters slaughtering endangered large mammals as boost to their own egos, with devastating consequences. Doug Strutt is one such "hunter" who justifies his participation in these rigged hunts -- perhaps even to himself -- by arguing that they support wildlife management. Although such models commonly work in the U.S., Beatriz is rightly quite skeptical of the kinds of "hunts" that attract the likes of her dinner companion.

The other environmental problem that Beatriz and the rest of the guests see quite differently is cancer. This is especially poignant because her connection to the hosts of the party is the healing work she did with their daughter as she suffered from cancer. As much as Cathy, the mother, admires Beatriz as a healer, she is skeptical when Beatriz speaks of environmental factors that cause the disease. In this part of the conversation, she echoes Rachel Carson, who drew connections between pesticides and health risks that many people simply found to uncomfortable to believe. At this fictional dinner party, it is as if Carson has the opportunity to bring her findings about pollution directly to a powerful culprit.

Lagniappe

Beatriz at Dinner does the viewer a favor of not resolving all of the questions it raises. It is a Hollywood film without a Hollywood resolution. It also makes good of magic realism, an important thread in much of the literature of Latin America.

Throughout the film, I thought of the irony of Hayek playing a character who is uncomfortable as a guest in a big, expensive house, even though she must own one. I wondered, in fact, if her own house was being used as the set, but from what I can tell on celebrity web sites, it is not. She does appear to own at least two houses larger than the one used in the film, and probably more than that. She is a multimillionaire married to a multibillionaire. She clearly has a Latina life that many film directors would consider implausible for a Latina character.

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