The fragmented recollections of a Chicano boy whose family scrapes out a meager living as agricultural laborers in 1950s rural America, "...And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him" strums an absorbing, accomplished but over-familiar riff on immigrant hardship.

The fragmented recollections of a Chicano boy whose family scrapes out a meager living as agricultural laborers in 1950s rural America, “…And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him” strums an absorbing, accomplished but over-familiar riff on immigrant hardship. Soft-pedaling of the story’s social injustices, along with slim character definition and a shortage of real dramatic sparks tag this squeaky-clean, innocuous production as unchallenging, easy-viewing fare for general tube situations.

Adapted from Tomas Rivera’s autobiographical novel, the film deals primarily with the importance of memory in determining a sense of roots, place and family. Through the eyes of 12-year-old Marcos (Jose Alcala), the members of his family are kept down by their arcane superstitions and by others’ exploitation of them. His mother (Rose Portillo) cultivates the spirits of the house and attempts to bargain with God for the return of her beloved son Julian, missing in Korea. His father (Daniel Valdez) takes seasonal work in the orange orchards, trying to retain some dignity despite low pay and appalling conditions.

Because annual trips north for harvesting jobs make it difficult to get a regular education, Marcos is left with an aunt and uncle so he can stay in one school. The grotesque, boozing couple barely feed him and work him into the ground, eventually frightening him into silence after they commit a crime. At school, bullied by WASP boys, Marcos retaliates and is victimized by the principal.

Gradually, pic pieces together a quietly aggrieved mosaic of the family’s dismal lot. But the well-performed, rambling reflection lacks an adequate mooring. The anxious wait for Julian goes only halfway toward filling that role. Likewise the exploration of Marcos’ rapport with death, his tested faith and his railing against the devil. The stamp of sanitized small-screen entertainment is sealed by pic’s mundane narration.

...And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him

Production

An American Playhouse Theatrical Films presentation of a KPBS/Severo Perez production. Produced by Paul Espinosa. Executive producers, Lindsay Law, Espinosa. Co-producer, Perez. Directed, written by Perez, based on the novel by Tomas Rivera.

Crew

Camera (color), Virgil Harper; editor, Susan Heick; music, Marcos Loya; production design, Armin Ganz; art direction, Kirk M. Petruccelli, Russell Smith, Peter Stolz; set decoration, Sharon Reed, Norine Joy Francis; costume design, Yvonne Cervantes; sound (Ultra-stereo), Susumu Tokunow; associate producer, Bob Morones; assistant director, John Acevedo; casting, Morones. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 19, 1994. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Marcos - Jose Alcala
Bartolo - Daniel Valdez
Florentina - Rose Portillo
Joaquin - Marco Rodriguez
Dona Rosa - Lupe Ontiveros
Lupita - Evelyn Guerrero
Don Cleto - Sam Vlahos
Lalo - Art Bonilla
El Mohado - Sal Lopez
Narrator - Miguel Rodriguez
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