Washington Heights is a working-class Latino neighborhood near the northern end of Manhattan. Formerly the home of a large and prosperous Jewish community — including, when they were young, Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger — it is now largely Dominican and Cuban, with a scattered remnant of Jewish and Russian enclaves. It is a vibrant place, in which one will hear many languages spoken and — if he pays attention — see many dramas unfold.
The new movie Washington Heights, which opens in Manhattan on May 9, takes the lives of its average-Joe Washington Heights characters and gives them an operatic twist. Carlos Ramirez (played by Manny Perez) is 28 years old and a talented cartoonist; he wants to escape the neighborhood and move to New York’s trendier downtown. His father, Eddie (Tomas Milian), runs a local bodega and wants Carlos to stay home. Destiny intervenes, in the form of a hoodlum who sticks up the bodega and shoots Eddie — leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and in dire need of help both at home and at the store.
Carlos does right by his dad, taking over behind the bodega’s counter by day and as nurse to Eddie by night. Rarely have movies portrayed this kind of family disaster as unsentimentally and as realistically as they are shown here; where the typical movie will entertain viewers with a tearful, cathartic wallow in the calamity itself, Washington Heights prefers to concentrate on the hard work and tough choices that usually ensue in real life. By being more grounded in these realities, this movie succeeds in being genuinely uplifting.
This is the first feature for director Alfredo de Villa, who already has a couple of short films to his credit. His attention to detail — the shop conversations, the church, the street gamblers — makes his Washington Heights an utterly believable cinematic place, and by the time the plot has taken its last devastating turn one has come to view his cast not as actors but as natural residents in the world of his story. I have been living in the real Washington Heights for a couple of years now, and the kind of tragic events depicted in this film are not typical of the neighborhood; but, of course, the tragedies depicted in verismo operas weren’t typical either. If I had been a resident of the fictional village where Turiddu lived, I probably would have resented Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana; I would have joined the local Chamber of Commerce in complaining that we were not, after all, the violent yokels depicted in that opera.
But that would have been to miss the point of realistic drama, which is to show ordinary people in struggles that are interesting precisely because they are unusual. In Washington Heights, Alfredo de Villa gives us characters that we learn to care about-and that’s why their fate really matters, in the drama he has created. The film appears to have been shot on a low budget; it looks and feels homemade. If the director keeps the sense for reality that he has displayed in this movie, the big-budget productions that are almost certainly in his future will also be well worth viewers’ attention.