Catalina Odio in "Cartas a Elena." (Handout )
For his first film, writer-director Martin Barajas Llorent (who goes by the helming handle Barajas-Llorent) has assembled an impressive cast of venerable Mexican actors, including Carmen Salinas, Irma Dorantes and Javier Lopez, for a gentle family drama set in a community of aging farmers. The Chihuahua locations and the septuagenarian faces lend "Cartas a Elena" a rootedness and authenticity that the filmmaker struggles to sustain in narrative terms.
The story revolves around the generational and cultural disconnect between country folk and their stateside children. Rural postman Teo (Jorge Galvan) doesn't just deliver the mail but also provides an epistolary service to the illiterate locals: He reads their children's letters to them and takes dictation for their responses. This amounts to passing a lot of worries and bad news back and forth. The script taps into the way emigrants' search for a better life often leads to a more complicated one as they trade tradition for possibility — and uncertainty.
Emilio (Jose Eduardo), the young orphan whom Teo has taken under his wing, doesn't accept the old man's observation that "suffering is part of life." The boy embarks on a naive yet compassionate bluebird-of-happiness project, fabricating good news for his customers, with predictable results.
Quieter moments possess an unassuming charm, but Barajas-Llorent badly overplays the big emotional scenes, to mawkish effect. A wall-to-wall music soundtrack accentuates the lack of modulation. Given the collective acting experience on tap, it's too bad "Cartas" isn't a more memorable dispatch.
"Cartas a Elena." MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, violence, language and smoking; in Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At selected theaters.