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`Tortilla Heaven' short of celestial

Overheated direction isn't what this gentle, whimsical tale needs, but it's piled on anyway.

March 16, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Falfurrias, N.M., may be tiny (population: 73), but it's not short on quirkiness. The church bell is rung by a man with a rock. A persistent pet pig follows a farmer's family into town. And while everyone else is worshiping, the local chef -- perhaps the least pious man in town -- finds the face of Jesus Christ burned into one of his tortillas.

That's a good starter, but "Tortilla Heaven" doesn't deliver the main dish.

The gentle comedy boasts top Latin and Native American talent, including George Lopez, Lupe Ontiveros (so good in "Real Women Have Curves") and Jose Zuniga ("Next Stop Wonderland") as the everyman cook. Miguel Sandoval (TV's "Medium") plays the obligatory devil figure, coolly measuring the precise lengths of rope for townsfolk to hang themselves. Argentine native Olivia Hussey (Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet"), of all people, graces the proceedings as a cow-whispering nudist.

There are nicely absurd bits of dialogue: "My God, it's a miracle! The tortilla resurrected the pig!" and "Oh, Jesus of the Tortilla, please watch over me -- especially in the essay section."

Beyond that, though, the experience of watching "Tortilla Heaven" is like a frozen smile: The film and its makers simply try too hard. Director and co-writer Judy Hecht Dumontet can't stop "helping" with overactive editing and scoring, such as tinkling bells every time the sacred tortilla is shown early on.

This heavy hand squeezes forced performances out of the actors, producing high levels of mugging. Most flounder as they grope for the heightened style Dumontet demands. Notable exceptions include Sandoval and Ontiveros, who puffs herself up to the appropriate size.

The film takes the miracle at face value: It's a magical event no one questions, but "Tortilla Heaven" doesn't achieve the lyrical quality of magical realism. Whereas most reports of holy sightings in, say, pancakes or knots of trees might invite healthy skepticism, this almost blase acceptance of a bona fide sign from God lowers the stakes.

The movie's universe -- physically, thematically, otherwise -- is so small that, despite an apparently divine presence, the most powerful effect evidenced is a town-wide frenzy of selfishness. Where a pinch of fresh, homemade blasphemy might have been the perfect spice, the targets are easy: primarily greed and worshiping false idols. Questions with a capital "Q" go unasked. The inevitable breakdown of civility distantly resembles "Cold Turkey" or "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," but without the mordant wit of those films.

*

"Tortilla Heaven." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some nudity and sexual humor. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In selected theaters.

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