Che Rivera is a Latino San Francisco bus driver respected in the Mission district barrio for building beautiful low rider cars, yet feared for his tough and machismo ways. A reformed inmate and recovering alcoholic, Che's path to redemption is tested when he discovers that his pride and joy -- his only child, Jesse is gay. In a homophobic rage, Che violently beats his son, disowning him.
Out of pride, Che loses his son and once again loses himself.
That is the story behind 'La Mission,' the most recent project that Hollywood actor Benjamín Bratt has undertaken.
Bratt, 46, who was born and raised in San Francisco to a Peruvian mother, talked to Vida en el Valle about his role of producer and that of Che Rivera, as well as sharing this project with his brother, writer/director Peter Bratt.
Q: What did you see in the script that convinced you to play this role?
A: "It was an opportunity that I had an insight to from the very beginning along with my brother. I think part of our mutual aim was to create a character, a Latino figure that the audiences had never really seen before, someone who is complex. The one thing that is true in the history when you look at Latino characters from Hollywood films, they are generally not as multidimensional as what really exists in life so we wanted to create a man who was just that.
"What we discovered about Che is that aside from all of the bad exterior and the rough angles, he's really a man that is motivated by love and at the center of his world is his 18-year-old boy Jesse, an honor student about to go off to UCLA who admits to being gay. So the film really becomes about how Che channels the love that already exists in his heart into finding a place of tolerance and perhaps even acceptance."
Q: How did you prepare yourself for this role?
A: "I don't believe I would have been able to do it any justice if I were not a father myself...
Bratt is married to actress Talisa Soto, who also has a part in 'La Mission.' The couple has 2 children.
"...I think even though the film really is a geographically and culturally specific one, the examination of the relationships and the emotions that come out of it are universally recognizable. We all come from somewhere, we all have parents, and fortunately most of us have experience the meaning of love. It doesn't really matter where you're from, you see the push and pull of the relationship between father and son as they try to negotiate the parent's surprise and revelation of the son's orientation. You really end up rooting for them.
"I think what was key for us as film makers was to not dehumanize Che, someone whose reaction to this information is violent and his intolerance is really heavy. But we also wanted to show his side of the story as well."
Q: Did you have to audition for your role?
A: "I'm one of the producers I hired myself! (he laughs)
"My brother wrote the role with me in mind. That's why I'm very fortunate as an actor, I had someone -- my brother -- who knows my strengths and is aware of my weaknesses and he came to tailor the role just for me."
Q: Our Latino culture is still very closed minded about homosexuality, having played a father to a gay son in this movie, what advice could you give to parents who are still not accepting of their gay children?
A: "I would say to look back to your roots and what forms you as a person of this particular cultura. At the heart and soul of our community is the importance of the family and the love that keeps the family together. Being a father myself I had to ask myself the same questions, What would I do? How would I respond? What if my children were to reveal this kind of news?
"Although it would be difficult because I understand they would face prejudice, they would face harm, they would face people abusing them and they would face intolerance. I would forever and ever hope that I would always meet my children with love and support as long as they are good to themselves and as long as they are being good to others, as long as they are kind, and generous and loving, and they are following their spiritual path, I will be there for them no matter what.
"That's really sort of the underlying message in our film that as hard as it is to change our behavior or our belief system -- which has been cultivated over decades, over a lifetime -- we have to acknowledge that change, fundamentally is a difficult process and that often involves pain. But if love is what hangs in the balance to make the effort to change and particular attitudes that are damaging to our youth, then it's certainly worth it."
Q: The New York Post said: "The finest performance in Benjamín's Bratt career." Do you agree with that?
A: "I'll put it this way, it's certainly the one role that I'm most proud of. I know historically there are a lot of folks out there that liked the role of Paco Aguilar, El Negro from 'Blood In and Blood Out' and there are others who favored Piñero, but I really feel that as great as those roles were, for me the complexity of this particular character Che and the challenges of playing someone like him, proves to be the most rewarding for me."
Q: What did you take away from this movie?
A: "One of the things I'm most proud of, and I know I share this feeling with my brother, is making the film making process for what it is: a collaboration. Because we are shooting in the Mission District and because we are telling a story about people that we know and love, we wanted to include them in that collaboration. We wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk and to do that we went to the community leaders and said we want to involve folks behind the camera and in front of the camera and so to that end there are a number of significant roles within the film that are played by folks we got right from the neighborhood.
"It gave the community a sense of pride and that in turn gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment that we achieved one of the most important goals which was making this a family and community affair."
Q: You brother Peter just won an award for this movie, how does that make you feel?
A: "The reality is that awards and that kind of recognition, although flattering, is not terribly important to me. What matters to me most and what matters to my brother the most is how the people receive the film. La gente is embracing it right now because they see, as we know, it is very, very rare when a film depicting a Latino experience that comes out of Hollywood has anything to do with accuracy, authenticity, and usually our people get short-tripped.
"Usually our community and the people that live within them they're generally portrayed in one-dimensional ways that are not reflective of the complexity that is alive and well within our community. We are most proud beyond any recognition of awards or anything else that people are seeing this as a kind of slice of life and a reflection of some of the realities that exists within our community."
'La Mission' (www.lamissionthemovie.com) is Rated R and has opened in selected theatres, including Sundance Kabuki & Metreon in San Francisco, Shattuck in Berkeley; Camera 12 in San José, and AMC Mercado in Santa Clara. On April 23 the film opens at the Nickolodeon in Santa Cruz and the Crest in Sacramento.