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REVIEW: 'Cesar Chavez' ★★

Biography of advocate for migrant workers skims the surface

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

10:19 AM EDT, March 27, 2014

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For years, Chicago-born Michael Pena has been the guy behind the guy, doing good, subtle work with the roles he's landed — occasionally in color-blind, ethnically nonspecific casting situations, more often up against other Latino performers also deserving of a less hidebound, more open-minded casting process.

Happily, bigger parts have begun to come Pena's way. The gentle, intuitive actor plays the title role in the new biopic "Cesar Chavez," and though he's not quite right for the role (his countenance is a bit youthful for Chavez) in flashes we see the interpretive work of which he's capable.

Pena's no showboater. He hangs back. He focuses on the underrated on-screen act of actually listening to what's going on, and what's being said. Many have written about the real-life Chavez's near-invisibility in a group situation, at least before the fame and all the headlines. Pena understands that sort of sidling-into a moment.

The film, alas, is standard-issue hagiography, too concerned with appearances to provide a rich interior life for its hero. "Cesar Chavez" was made with the full and evident cooperation of the Chavez estate. As scripted by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton the film concerns Chavez's '60s years, when he left the LA-based Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights advocacy group, to organize and improve the working and economic conditions of California's migrant worker underclass.

The United Farm Workers ran up against all manner of opposition from the growers. In the film, John Malkovich provides the face of that opposition, a (fictional) vineyard owner of immigrant stock like his adversary Chavez. America Ferrera plays Chavez's patient, valiant wife and the mother of eight; Rosario Dawson portrays Chavez's right-hand woman, the real-life labor leader Dolores Huerta.

The actors are ready to have at this man's story, which begins in earnest when the Chavez clan relocates to Delano, Calif. The activist is out to create "an army of boycotters," squeezing the growers' economic interests by avoiding California table grapes at the grocery store. Various elements of Chavez's life — his estrangement from one of his sons; his 25-day hunger strike — arrive and are resolved, dutifully. Director Diego Luna has made one narrative feature, "Abel," and while his aesthetic here is nothing special (faux-documentary hand-held camera work in the main), it does the job. But too many moments are underlined with a heavy pencil. When you have a priest intoning "the body of Christ" during an open-air Communion service, for instance, your next shot should not be Pena's Chavez, aided by loyal followers, replicating a Station of the Cross for symbolism's sake.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Cesar Chavez" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)

Running time: 1:41; in English and Spanish with English subtitles.

Opens: Friday.