In May of this year, 17 years after its theatrical release, The Milagro Beanfield War finally became available on DVD. Directed by Robert Redford, the film tells the story of a conflict affecting the residents of Milagro, New Mexico when one of them decides to plant pinto beans. “Milagro” means miracle as is befitting a place in which the commonplace and the extraordinary exist side by side. Despite the political overtones to this story in which impoverished villagers are pitted against wealthy land developers, the movie never loses its fable-like character.
After unintentionally releasing water onto a parched piece of land, Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) decides to grow beans. This seemingly innocent act triggers strong emotions in this dusty, dying town since it is seen as an affront to the developers who need the water for a development that would ultimately displace the locals. Ruben Blades stars as Sheriff Bernie Montoya whose attempts to maintain the peace require him to work with both residents and developers. Those attempts fail, however, moving the story along to its resolution.
This film is an ensemble effort. In addition to those by Vennera and Blades, engaging performances are given by Sonia Braga as Ruby, a repair garage owner who is the conscience of the community; by John Heard as a newspaper publisher attempting to forget his past as a radical lawyer; by Christopher Walken as Kyril Montana, whose name conveys just how out of place he is in Milagro; and by Carlos Riquelme, the oldest man in town, who converses with angels and keeps a pet pig.
Other characters are introduced through Herbie Platt (Daniel Stern), a New York sociology graduate student who comes to Milagro to conduct research among the town’s Spanish-Indian residents. His explorations provide us a greater understanding of the community as he is pelted by pebbles thrown by a crazy woman and as he learns how butterflies stole the arm of a man as he napped on a warm day.
The main character in this film, however, is the land. Robert Redford’s concern for land issues is evident in the choice of subject matter and in the way in which it is portrayed. Much credit must go to director of photography Robbie Greenberg for shots of true beauty and grace. These are accompanied and enhanced by Dave Grusin’s Academy Award-winning score.
The DVD includes an interview with Robert Redford about the genesis of the film and how it was made. While useful information, it is not essential to an appreciation for a film that, despite its flaws, deserves greater recognition for its artfulness than it has yet received.