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Smooth Sayles-ing

Casa de los Babys finds a mother lode of maternal angst.

The six vivid women thrown together by fate in John Sayles's Casa de los Babys are frequently divided by their bickering, but they are united in a deep common yearning -- and of that Sayles has made an observant and provocative drama about the ambiguities of adult life and the tricks of fortune. Trust the maker of Lone Star, Matewan and Limbo to once more mine the secret lives and hopes of characters trapped with one another in emotional purgatory.

The casa of the title is a vaguely shady resort hotel in an unnamed South American country, where the women -- five Americans and an Irishwoman -- are holed up, edgy as cats, while they await government approval of their applications to adopt local infants. Privileged by birth or marriage but denied the satisfactions of motherhood, they strive mightily -- and not always appealingly -- to complete their unfinished lives.

At the same time, Sayles (who is currently shooting scenes for his new film, Silver City, here in Denver) gives us some telling looks at the local people and forces these expectant mothers bump up against in their touching, sometimes grubby, always single-minded quest. The world-weary proprietor of the hotel, Señora Muñoz (a sharp-tongued Rita Moreno), has had scores of these women pass through her establishment and thinks her guests helpless fools, while her bumbling, thirty-something son sees them as yanqui imperialists sucking the life out of his country in yet another way. Ever the keen ironist, Sayles also sprinkles in scenes of homeless, paint-sniffing urchins begging and hustling in the streets. For every baby who's an object of boundless desire, it says here, there's another baby no one wants who sleeps alone on the beach.

Cry baby: Maggie Gyllenhaal is stuck in Casa de 
los Babys.
Cry baby: Maggie Gyllenhaal is stuck in Casa de los Babys.

Casa's contrasts between affluence and poverty, and between the varieties of human striving, can seem pat and overly symmetrical, but Sayles comes through in the end with a couple of astonishing set pieces that give the film all the rich human texture we've come to expect from this quirky, fiercely independent filmmaker. In one memorable exchange, the gentle would-be mother from Ireland, Eileen (Susan Lynch, late of Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish) relates a heart-rending fantasy in which her as-yet unattained daughter gets to stay home from school on a snow day. Touching as that story is, it is upstaged by the subsequent monologue of Eileen's listener, a chambermaid named Asunción (Vanessa Martinez) whose own tale of early motherhood and loss is even more poignant. Eileen speaks in English, Asunción in Spanish, and neither woman understands the other on a literal level. But the connection they make is profound, a mystery beyond words. In another striking moment, a fitness-crazed Coloradan called Skipper (long, lean Daryl Hannah) dispassionately reveals the biological tragedies that have darkened her womanhood: three pregnancies, three deaths, each baby with a name -- Cody, Gabriel and Joshua. The ogres in the house may hear such stuff as soap-opera or talk-show confession, but it has about it the urgency and authenticity of real drama.

Of the remaining mothers-in-waiting, Marcia Gay Harden's belligerent Nan, a pathological liar carrying some alarming emotional baggage, is the most irksome. "They're gonna make us earn our babies," she complains. "It's part of the balance of trade." Mary Steenburgen's Gayle, the born-again Christian who's also a recovering alcoholic, is probably the most schematic. Maggie Gyllenhall's Jennifer, long frustrated by infertility, is a picture of damaged self-esteem, and Lili Taylor's wisecracking Leslie, a single, unattached book publisher from New York, provides a nice contrast between big-city cynicism and blunt cool-headedness. She might make the best mother of them all. Taken as a group, the six women make for an interesting grab bag (Sayles likes stories with lots of characters), but no more so than their Spanish-speaking counterparts, whose own agendas and ambitions are, by necessity, at odds with those of the baby-obsessed invaders from el Norte. Sayles doesn't determine to make any outright judgments on Latin American economics or Latin American resentment, the baby-exportation business or even the creeping grotesquerie of his desperate gringas, but in just 95 minutes of screen time, he weaves a compelling tapestry of conflicting forces, hopes and dreams that speaks -- for good and for ill -- of the human struggle for fulfillment.

 
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