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‘Cesar Chavez’: Michael Pena plays an important leader with quiet power

Having excelled supporting roles “End Watch” “Crash” Michael Penis front center playing title role real-life labor leader “Cesar Chavez.”

Having excelled in supporting roles in “End of Watch” and “Crash,” Michael Pena is front and center playing the title role of a real-life labor leader in “Cesar Chavez.” | PANTELION FILMS

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‘CESAR CHAVEZ’ ★★★

Cesar Chavez Michael Pena

Helen Chavez America Ferrera

Dolores Huerta Rosario Dawson

Bogdonovich John Malkovich

Pantelion Films presents a film directed by Diego Luna and written by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some language and violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: April 29, 2014 6:11AM



So many of the seminal events of 1962 are well-remembered today — even by those not even close to being born at that time. Mention the Beatles releasing their first album, President Kennedy’s Cuban missile crisis or John Glenn orbiting the Earth, and you’re likely to get a knowing nod.

However, bring up Cesar Chavez and his founding of the United Farm Workers, and younger people may give you a blank stare.

That’s one of the benefits of director Diego Luna’s new “Cesar Chavez,” a solid and mostly successful attempt to introduce this important labor leader and civil rights activist to younger audiences, while reminding older folks of the impact Chavez had on this country.

It also is good to see Michael Pena — an actor who showcased his excellent acting skills in important supporting roles in “End of Watch” and “Crash” — playing the lead. While Pena does share plenty of physical characteristics with the late Chavez, it is the way he interprets the countenance of the soft-spoken, frankly uncharismatic leader that resonates so beautifully. Unlike a Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Bobby Kennedy, Chavez was not a highly engaging orator. It was the strength of his message and the commitment he had to improving workers’ lives that made him a hero to millions.

It is that quiet resilience that Pena captures in his performance.

Shooting his first predominately English-language film, Luna at times veers a bit too much into a documentary mode. That said, I did like the way Luna and his screenwriters weave Chavez’s personal life into the storytelling. While his public accomplishments are showcased, what makes this film truly interesting is how those activities affected his private life — even leading to an estrangement from his beloved son, Fernando.

As Chavez’s wife, Ferrara captures the sense of partnership Helen Chavez shared with her husband. John Malkovich, who portrays one of Chavez’s major adversaries, again proves why he’s one of our best actors working today. Though a composite figure, his grape grower is one heck of a complicated character — an immigrant himself who works hard to keep another group of immigrants (the Mexicans laboring in his fields) under his thumb as a major landowner. Malkovich plays him as a man who reluctantly sees the contradictions that frame his life.

Yet it’s Pena’s quietly powerful interpretation of Cesar Chavez the man that makes this movie work so well.

Email: bzwecker@suntimes.com

Twitter: @billzwecker



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