She got spirit

Faith leads a small-town mother into iniquity.

SOILING HER LOVELY slim skirt and losing her sling-back heels, a young Mexican widow digs desperately in the mud. Esperanza is determined to see for herself if her daughter is buried in the casket she stands on. But before she can break open the coffin, cemetery caretakers pull her away kicking and screaming. "This ground is mine! I paid in perpetuity!" she protests. And she can bloody well unearth the grave if she wants to—Saint Jude himself OK'd the sacrilege.


directed by Alejandro Springall with Dolores Heredia, Fernando Torre Lapham, and DemiᮠBichir opens October 6 at Broadway Market

Based on Mar???Amparo Escand� short story (since expanded into her novel Esperanza's Box of Saints), Alejandro Springall's debut feature explores big themes of motherly love, religious faith, and redemption. It's a risky mixture for box-office success, as is the unlikely premise: A saint appears in the greasy window of Esperanza's oven and tells her that her 12-year-old daughter—proclaimed dead after a routine tonsillectomy—is in fact alive. The saint, a humble plastic figurine, doesn't divulge the girl's whereabouts, but Esperanza becomes convinced that she's been sold into child prostitution. Henceforth, mother goes in search of daughter, traveling from her small idyllic town in southern Mexico to the netherworlds of Tijuana and Los Angeles.

Santitos manages to work—and work well—thanks largely to fiery star Dolores Heredia's portrayal of Esperanza and the amusing Fernando Torre Lapham as her priest and confidant. Our skepticism toward Esperanza's visions is outweighed by the old priest's encouragement, while Heredia deftly mixes humor and pathos to create one of the most thoroughly believable female Latin American characters on screen this year. (See Penelope Cruz's underwritten role in Woman on Top for comparison.)

At times, director Springall's vision recalls early Almod�, with flamboyant characters and set design. One especially striking set resembles Yayoi Kusama's obsessive, repetitive sculptures—a labyrinthine house covered with paintings of eyeballs, while images of nude women are fragmented and spun around as in a kaleidoscope.

The quirky script propounds a kind of syncretic Catholicism that seems as livable as Lieberman's brand of orthodox Judaism. While Esperanza may sell her body, she never sells her soul. She clutches her religious statuettes to her breast and telephones her exasperated priest to confess.

Springall, who himself lost a child a few years ago, profoundly understands his protagonist. "There are some things in life that transcend religion and morality," he said during a recent visit to Seattle. "Any parent in any culture would have done the same [as Esperanza]. Your child is more important to you than your genitals."

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