Director: John Sayles
Writer: John Sayles
Stars: Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen
“One thing about a John Sayles’ movie. The man tells a hard story well. It’s not easy to tell a story where shame marks every motive, every transaction, every result. In Casa de Los Babys, South American infants born without a future are given up for adoption to wealthy mothers from other countries, especially the U.S. The babies may be winning a ticket out of a dirt scraping poverty but it is a coveted ticket, carrying the stain of fathers and mothers left behind who long for opportunity. Try that for complexity. And then, to make matters worse, the mothers who are reaching out for the babies bear their own cuffs of shame. Casa de Los Babys doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Told with empathy for all involved, Sayles makes it difficult to take sides, to find any ‘right’ position to defend or any enemy – other than despair – to blame.”
Most movie reviewers took the high road with Casa de Los Babys, calling the mothers superficial and the South Americans poor victims. But there’s more than that. Much more. There’s shame.
Shame – What is it? A deep sense of personal inadequacy passed on from parent to child, one generation to another, as if a child were to blame for being a burden, as if babies were responsible for imposing on a family’s meager resources – material and emotional – and as if their birth accounted for the lack of opportunity that awaits them. Shame conquers by invisibility. This is not a feeling of guilt where something has gone wrong and can be fixed. This is shame, a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you that is passed down and passed on by ridicule, self-righteous discipline and elitist rules of oppression. It rises up in work that doesn’t pay or provide, thrives in families with mouths too many to feed, and cuts off its victim from feelings of trust for years to come. This is eye-dropping shame, the kind that self-perpetuates long after a baby changes hands. The only way out is for all of us to become aware of the silent erosion of dignity taking place beneath the surface. That’s what Sayles gives us in Casa de Los Babys. Awareness is the beginning of a reversal of fortunes.
This is more than a story about six mothers coming to adopt babies in South America. Casa de Los Babys weaves a profound portrayal of a country’s people trapped by the stifling consequences of corrupt politics, rampant unemployment and a futureless future for their youth. The film backdrops its tale of adoption against a pictorial representation of a fated progression from baby to adulthood in a South American beach town.
Sayles starts with the babies, born to girls too young and grandparents too poor to keep them. They are adorable, innocent – and too many. What would happen to them if they were not adopted?Los Babys shows the next stage – homeless street kids, begging, stealing to survive. They foretell the future. And then it moves along to the cadres of young, well-meaning men and women who have dropped out of school and subsist on menial or pick up jobs. They live on dreams, hoping for a lottery ticket that will bring back a child adopted by a family far away or enough money to buy a seat on an airplane and start a new life in a far away city. Finally, he brings in vignettes of older adults who eke out a living tending, feeding or fixing things for tourists. They shake their heads in disgust watching their fairly grown children who, attempting to rebel against a dead-end, take out their frustrations carousing, hustling and scheming against the government. Almost everyone comes down from dirt floor shacks in the mountains – on foot, bicycles or ancient buses – to work the tourist trade near the beaches. A sense of great sadness, a head hanging shame, accompanies their descent.
Then Sayles turns his eagle eye on each of the six mothers of so-called privilege waiting for babies to be given to them. They are enduring months of anxious waiting, worth it because international adoptions are sure things, but nerve wracking because…well, that’s the question, because why? As each woman’s character emerges under an expectant impatience, another kind of shame emerges. The shame of not feeling worthy – a disqualifying shame that marks them ‘not normal’ women. The women’s wanting and buying babies represents hope against hope, not just for the babies but for them as well to escape shame. Slowly, Casa de Los Babys examines what lies beneath each woman’s desire. Each woman’s history reveals a deeply felt personal emptiness no less poignant than the emptiness of opportunity in this South American town. The baby represents her hope to transform a different kind of shame – one that they believe will be fixed by circumventing their failure to give birth, sustain new life.
Behind each woman’s reality lies debilitating doubt. One prospective mother, easily labeled New Age, strives for the perfect body, exercising obsessively to stave away the pain of giving birth to three babies who died before they lived. Another, easily labeled an alcoholic, looks continually on the bright side, a Pollyanna refusing to entertain a bad thought about anyone as if it might reveal her own weakness. She strives for perfection. But she is the one who has seen another wanna-be mother furtively steal soap from the housekeeping cart. That woman, easily labeled a bitchy bigot, bears a physical scar of shame burned into her wrist by her own mother as a disciplinary measure. She hides her shame with a prickly anger that isolates her. The dark side of yet another rescuer, money worried and working class, emerges as she spins her tale of sweet dreams to a young Latina maid who can’t understand a word she says but gives her the idealizing looks she craves. This woman’s dreams will never come true because she, herself, will have to work long hard hours to pay the bills while her child is growing up. And then there’s the one easily labeled confused. She’s the youngest and most frightened, a woman who seems to be trying to save a floundering marriage by bringing home a baby. The last mother-wanna-be, easily labeled a lesbian, lays out a tight defensive plan about how she’s going to raise her child. It must be a baby girl. She’ll be careful not to show too much feeling, never spoil her or be friends with her. And she won’t be disappointed when the child hates her. These are not women who feel confident, coming to adopt babies for the pleasure of sharing their love, delight and good fortune. They come fearful, needy and equipped with their own personal closets of shame.
The cover-up pictures of shame have a tendency to come with many pretty labels in real life. Mothers of wealth and cute babies-in-need may seem like a match made in heaven but, as Casa de Los Babysreveals, devastating feelings of personal inadequacy lie not far beneath the surface on both sides. Sayles’ complex film with his “picture-worth-a-thousand words” storytelling may leave us sad, feeling helpless and inclined to drop our own eyes. But the shrewd genius of Sayles’ Los Babys is that it makes the invisible visible, bringing hidden wounds into full view and creating an authentic opportunity for healing. Awareness of the circle of shame is the beginning.