THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"A MIRACLE IN SPANISH HARLEM"
When you think of Christmas, certain things come to mind. The birth of Jesus is certainly the biggest one, but you probably also think of love, family, and friends. The holiday movie A Miracle in Spanish Harlem is about all these things. Designed to reflect the feelings of faith and hope that characterize the yuletide season, the film offers a warm-hearted story that will appeal to Christian audiences in particular, but also those who seek a nice, wholesome Christmas tale.
Luis Antonio Ramos (Do the Right Thing) plays Tito Jimenez, the proprietor of a corner supermarket in Spanish Harlem. The widowed father of two little girls, Tito is experiencing a significant lack of faith over the holidays. His store is financially struggling, meaning he might have to lay off his faithful, mentally-challenged employee (ubiquitous character actor Adrian Martinez), or even close altogether. He also has to work a second job as a cabbie in order to scrape by. One day, a new neighborhood resident comes in. She is Eva (Under the Same Moon's Kate del Castillo). Tito likes her, and they begin to date. While Eva makes him happy, his increasingly dire financial situation does the exact opposite. He takes a desperate measure to boost business at his store. While it initially works, the guilt of what he does also sends Tito into a downward spiral that threatens to ruin his relationship with Eva. The key to getting back on track may rest with the drifter (The Wire's Andre Royo) who seems to be hanging around the store a lot.
A Miracle in Spanish Harlem is a faith film and, as evidenced by the title, involves a miracle in the third act. But the interesting thing about the movie is that it says the real miracle isn't anything tangible so much as the ability to find strength in the moments when we feel there's none left. Writer/director Derek Velez Partridge suggests that the greatest gifts any of us could ask for are the loved ones God surround us with the ones who forgive us when we mess up, love us despite our flaws, and encourage us when things get rough. Tito has become so wrapped up in worrying about his problems that he loses sight of the things he does have.
Because it is a low-budget production, A Miracle in Spanish Harlem admittedly has a few awkward moments. Once or twice, the plot necessitates something that was apparently too expensive to film (e.g. a flashback involving a car colliding with another object), requiring Partridge to edit around it. As is often the case with faith films, a few moments are a little too on the nose. A scene of Tito raging in a church, for instance, is important to the plot, yet also just a bit melodramatic. There's additionally a highly distracting cameo from Geraldo Rivera, who is surprisingly stiff on camera, considering that he's playing himself.
These are the kinds of things you might focus on from a technical point of view. From an emotional point of view, though, the movie has a great deal working in its favor. The main selling point is the coupling of Luis Antonio Ramos and Kate del Castillo. Both of them give sincere, authentic, nuanced performances, far above what you normally find in films of this genre. Their chemistry is fantastic, and we become deeply involved in the relationship between Tito and Eva for that reason. Ramos, in particular, creates a fully fleshed-out character. In his hands, we empathize with Tito, who's trying to be a good father, a good boyfriend, and a good businessman, all at the same time, while beating himself up for every little mistake he makes. (No wonder he needs a miracle.) The supporting actors are fine, as well, especially Andre Royo. You will likely figure out his character's purpose in advance but, to his credit, he doesn't play things predictably. Whatever technical flaws A Miracle in Spanish Harlem may have are largely overshadowed by the way these good actors help us become invested in the material.
Of course, the message is nice, too. Partridge integrates the Christian themes into the story well, so that they have a real impact. A Miracle in Spanish Harlem is a simple, yet earnest exploration of the difference faith can make in a person's life how it can keep you holding on when your grip is loosening, and how it can inspire you to be a better person, for yourself as well as for those around you. If you're looking for a Christmas movie that doesn't shy away from religion, this sweet, charming, life-affirming film is a good bet.
( out of four)
Note: A Miracle in Spanish Harlem opens December 6 at Digiplex Destinations theaters across the country. For more information, please visit the official website.
A Miracle in Spanish Harlem is rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and some disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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