As flat as a tortilla and considerably less nourishing, “Tortilla Heaven” cooks up a muddled religio-comic fable about the residents of a tiny New Mexico burg who receive a vision of the divine and decide, unwisely, to milk it for all it’s worth. Hispanic audiences look to be the target demo for this 97-minute purgatory of strained comedy and forced uplift, though some names in the cast, notably George Lopez, could help pic sizzle on homevid after it fades from theaters like last night’s refried beans.
In the desert town of Falfarrias (pop. 73) stands Tortilla Heaven, a Mexican restaurant run by Isidor (Jose Zuniga), who discovers an awe-inspiring image burned into one of his freshly made tortillas: the face of Jesus. “You can’t keep a miracle a secret,” intones Isidor’s wife (Elpidia Carrillo) prophetically, and soon the entire village has been whipped into a frenzy of flatbread worship, hailing the oversized communion wafer as a sign from God.
The tortilla does appear to have wondrous healing properties: Its mere proximity jumpstarts the engine of a broken-down truck and even brings a dead pig back to life. As for that little boy in the wheelchair, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to guess that he’ll be walking by the end of the movie.
But things start to turn sour when super-oily opportunist Gil Garcia (Miguel Sandoval, NBC’s “Medium”) rolls into town and takes over management of Isidor’s restaurant operation. As word of “the Holy Tortilla” spreads and tourism begins to thrive, the town begins to lose itself in an orgy of greed, petty squabbling and reck-less overspending that ensnares everyone from the local authorities (Geno Silva, Lopez) to the local priest (Marcelo Tubert).
First-time feature director Judy Hecht Dumontet (who wrote the screenplay with Julius Robinson) clearly intends “Tortilla Heaven” to be a zesty ensemble entertainment, operating in a broadly comic vein while creating a sense of authentic, lived-in community. Helmer’s primary strategy is to have virtually every scene lapse into prolonged hysterics, often with salsa music blaring festively in the background; overly jumpy cross-cutting (by a trio of editors) doesn’t help.
Pic’s almost exclusively Latino and Native American cast is mostly reduced to playing folksy caricatures, feverishly crossing themselves and peppering their Mexican-accented English with the odd exclamation in Spanish. But give some of the women credit: Olivia Hussey adds some loopy fun as a cow-milking nudist, while Lupe Ontiveros brings her usual brash attitude to bear on the role of a lecherous and overbearing mother-in-law.
Production as a whole feels disjointed and thrown together for reasons that become all too clear in light of the film’s 14 credited producers. Incidentally, the real-life “Holy Tortilla” legend hails from Lake Arthur, N.M., where the first (but certainly not the last) culinary manifestation of Jesus’ face was reported in 1977. But after “Tortilla Heaven,” auds won’t be praying for a Second Coming.