Oh how I wanted to like “Tortilla Heaven.” Really like it. Saturday-afternoon-movie like it.
Because writer/director Judy Hecht Dumontet goes for what news reports of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich and other reports like that don’t do in such a short span of time: Really get into the personalities of the people who crowd around a religious vision like that and believe more fervently in their faith, that miracles can occur where we don’t expect them to on a daily basis. She does this with a cast that seems so natural in the small town of Falfúrrias, New Mexico. They’ve been tanned by the rays of the sun for decades and don’t mind the heat. They’re confident in who they are and they live their lives as such, but not without the guidance of the church, led by Father Pancracio (Marcelo Tubert), every Sunday, before a feast for big appetites for most at Tortilla Heaven, owned and operated by Isidor (Jose Zuniga) who believes more in the power of sleep than the power of Christ on a Sunday morning.
But Jesus comes to him on a stove where he cooks his tortillas. In a few minutes time after he throws tortilla dough on the stovetop, an image of Jesus is burned in and the uproar begins, excitedly. What does this mean for those who have faithfully gone to church, who hope for events in life to turn in their benefit? For Everado (George Lopez), the sole police officer of the town, it means his son being able to walk again one day and become stronger. For others, it includes passing a civic service test, and for Father Pancracio, anything to benefit the church, though statues for him more than anything else.
I liked these people. All of them. From Ruffino (Del Zamora), who runs the local market, to Everado, a real family man, and a beneficial character for George Lopez who, unlike Ray Romano, can play somebody completely different in a movie and not tap into his persona created for television. And then Miguel Sandoval shows up as Gil, an opportunistic “management consultant,” as he calls himself. With Jesus’s image in this tortilla, there is so much that can be done for this town. A long-delayed road can finally be built. Businesses can expand. This town can thrive; maybe bring on a casino resort.
It’s not entirely Sandoval’s doing that makes “Tortilla Heaven” start to break apart long before it’s over. He’s always been a good actor in all the roles he’s done. He causes a smile of recognition wherever he appears. But it’s Gil himself. It’s the way he snakes into everything that takes up these people’s lives after the discovery of the tortilla. That may be the point. In fact, it must be with the way he’s constantly there, as if we can’t tell for the umpteenth time that he’s striving to change things for his benefit. And because of this, all the people of the town have to be involved somehow. New romances have to be created. Miracles have to happen. But it’s hard to remain interested in everyone when they’re continually shuffled around. Half-baked storylines abound. One woman who’s deemed the witch of the town is more interesting than Isidor’s struggle to try to overcome what threatens to swallow him. And the farmer outside the town has a face that causes one to demand to see more of him, especially when he tries to shoo his pig, Felix, out of the church, with no success, as Felix drinks from the holy water.
It’s disappointing, because not only does George Lopez and many of the actors deserve a little better (Lopez, among others, is grossly underused), but Chuy Chavez’s vivid cinematography makes a more extensive walk around the town seem very attractive, in the preparation of the food, in the way the sun beats down and then sets at the end of the day, creating what the townspeople should already see as heaven on Earth. They don’t need Jesus to know that.