Casa de los Babys (2003)

Casa de Los Babys is about women who want to adopt children. But then it becomes about why people want to have children, and why women particularly are drawn to that or not drawn to that, or are afraid of that or need that.
— Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Making of Casa de Los Babys

When people call our movies ‘political,’ I always feel like they’re politically conscious in that they’re not politically unconscious. They’re not necessarily ideological, because I often don’t come up with a fixed ending that would say, ‘Oh, this is what you have to do, and if you only do this, the world is going to be a better place.’ I often end up a movie with more questions than I have answers.
— John Sayles, commentary track, Casa de Los Babys

John Sayles begins his audio commentary for the excellent DVD of Casa de Los Babys by noting an attendant singing to an infant, holding it to her chest as she walks through a nursery full of babies. “These are traditional lyrics,” he says, “and if you don’t speak Spanish, the lyrics are that, ‘If you don’t go to sleep, the white monster will come and eat your hands and feet off,’ which has a kind of symbolic bearing on the rest of the film.”

Indeed. The movie, which focuses on a group of U.S. women arrived in an unidentified Latin American country (shot in Acapulco) to adopt children, is as much about cultural imperialism and racism as it is about women and babies. The women, different, competitive, and supportive in their egregiously liminal state –waiting to be assigned babies so they can leave for home — are played by a group of stunningly talented performers. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) yearns to please her wealthy husband Henley, so busy with his career that he was “unable” to accompany her, while gentle Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) seeks spiritual connection and Irish immigrant Eileen (Susan Lynch) wants a daughter she imagines walking to school in crunchy new snow.

Such fantasies are lovely, but they are juxtaposed repeatedly in Sayles’ incisive, detailed script, which never loses sight of the politics of the women’s decisions, resources, and mobilities. Casa de Los Babys opens with what Sayles refers to as a “typical” morning for the “neighborhood”: “People walk down this mountain to work in the city below,” he says as the camera tracks laborers en route. In the city, the camera takes you inside the hotel (Sayles: “This hotel that you’re going to see, this ’30s style hotel up on the hill, for a while belonged to Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan”), where the women have taken up residence to wait for their babies to be “ready.”

The hotel is run by the relentlessly entrepreneurial Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno, in what Sayles describes as her only wholly Spanish-speaking role). With one eye on her telenovela on tv, she keeps track of her business, annoyed that her guests appear so helpless: “They want to be mothers and they can’t even take care of themselves,” she huffs.

Her most irritating customer is Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), whose superciliousness (she avers that children need to be disciplined to behave, or to reject their cultural legacy) is cover for deep insecurity, and whose racism is so ingrained and unthinking that she’s unaware of it. When, at lunch, the athlete and health expert of the group, Skipper (Daryl Hannah) tells the others, “The lower on the food chain you eat, the better the nutritional value. Though the risk of toxicity increases,” Nan is aghast. “Thank you for sharing. There’s probably every disease known to man down here.”

Nan’s disrespect and disconnectedness look rather terminal; if she’s unable to converse with her fellow would-be adoptive mothers, she’s unable to believe that locals feel anything she might. Though she confronts the lawyer “handling” her case (threatening him with her husband’s arrival on the scene), the man is clearly unrattled, having seen all sorts of displays of foot-stomping in the past. Aware that this red-faced blusterer can’t speak Spanish, he makes a call that arranges for an adoption and hence, her early departure, complaining about her in front of her: the scene suggests that the power she believes she wields is illusory. “Your paperwork is entering the final phase,” soothes the lawyer, so obviously untruthfully that even Nan picks up on it. The scene also shows the small ways that some others who feel in control of their small pieces of real estate — like the lawyer, like Señora Muñoz — are equally self-delusional. Though they get over on Nan, it’s a painfully minor victory.

All the turf here is small (Nan steals toiletries from the maids’ cart, imagining no one sees her), but the fact that the children’s lives are about to be changed forever looms large. This especially when one of the hotel maids, Asunción (Vanessa Martinez), tells a tearful story of giving up her own daughter for adoption for a startled Eileen. Non-Spanish speaking viewers have the benefit of subtitles, but Eileen can only guess at what polite, uniformed Asunción is saying. By the end of her speech, however, it’s hard not to know just how overwhelming are her circumstances, as she inspects each new adoptive prospect, wondering if she is a “good one,” worthy of her daughter.

The last of the American women is Leslie (Lili Taylor, of whom Sayles says, “One of the reasons I thought of Lili for this particular character is that I often like to work with good actors doing something I haven’t seen them do, or doing something I haven’t seen them do recently. And I’d seen her be very impressive with a bunch of characters in a row, but all of them basically very literal-minded and humorless, Valerie Solanis in I Shot Andy Warhol being probably the most humorless of them all”). A book editor, Leslie’s looking for a way to have a child without masculine entanglements, and keeps tragedy back by piles of information (on euphemisms for female genitalia, on the history of the country they’re “visiting,” on the laws of adoption and imperial relations between nations). Ready with a self-preserving comeback in any situation, she forms an unlikely friendship with Gayle, whose faith appears at once resilient and fragile.

During their encounters with locals, the women tend to be clueless, self-conscious, or eager to “help.” (Or, in Nan’s case, plainly racist.) Jennifer and Skipper meet a young man eager to impress them with his knowledge of the States: “Do you know of this city of Philadelphia?” he asks. “I would like to find a job there.” When the women wonder why that city in particular, he’s surprised that they don’t know. “It is the cradle of liberty,” he asserts. His listeners smile, unable to disabuse him of his dream.

Sayles has several ideas at work in the film. One, as he describes it, has to do with the women per se: “One of the things that I thought about when I started to think about making this movie, was how many feature films there are about groups of men, whether it’s army movies or sports movies or gang movies or business movies or whatever. And there are very very few that deal with dynamics among groups of women.” Their rich, swirling emotional encounters only scratch at surfaces of the many complications of their economic, ethical, and emotional differences. He also remarks on sheer spread of emotional experiences, across nation, race, generation, and class. The film, he proposes, shows “this incredible kind of personal and social interconnectedness between these people who are moving in different directions in a lot of ways, but whose lives have something to do with one another and affect each other.”

At the same time, the women comprise a particular focus, for the film’s narrative structure and its political interests. “These are people who are here on a mission,” observes Sayles,” as the film occurs over a day and a next morning, when a couple of the women are selected as mothers, Nan and Eileen, probably the most completely opposite of the group. (As the director comments ruefully over the final scene, the two sitting on a bench in the adoption office, each is about to take home a child, and each will raise it in her own way — and you can’t help but worry about the baby going home with Nan.)

In “The Making of Casa de Los Babys,” a 23-minute featurette included on the DVD, Sayles and the actors offer their understandings of “what the movie is about.” According to Steenburgen, “It’s about a clash of cultures and also what’s similar about cultures.” And for Harden, “It’s an extremely poignant tale of distress. Economic distress for a country, for Mexico. Political distress, emotional distress for the six women who are trying to have children.” Most of the actors suggest that their characters are enigmatic or complicated, and in their hands, they all are.

In “On Location with John Sayles,” a film by Bruno de Almeida for Independent Film Channel also on the DVD, Sayles makes clear his concerns with the nation and race dilemmas he raises in the film: “When I talk about Casa de Los Babys with Americans, and I add that one little extra thing about, ‘And there’s a way to look at this, that it’s some form of cultural imperialism,’ and I say, for instance, Korean people don’t come to the United States and adopt Caucasian babies, people laugh, because it seems like such a strange idea to them. Nobody laughs in Latin America…”