Esta página no está disponible en español.



Playing Piñero As Just Enough Of A Mess


December 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Benjamin Bratt----------

Benjamin Bratt as the playwright Miguel Piñero.
[PHOTO: Abbot Genser]


The Prey of Demons, Miguel Piñero Wrote Like an Angel (December 2, 2001)

Observing the world through hooded snake eyes in a fog of cigarette smoke, jabbing the air as he raps out poetry in a sly staccato drawl, Benjamin Bratt resurrects the spirit of the playwright, poet and actor Miguel Piñero with the kind of thrilling brio that Dustin Hoffman brought to his screen portrayal of Lenny Bruce 27 years ago. In "Piñero," Leon Ichaso's moody agitated portrait of the playwright, who died in 1988 of cirrhosis of the liver, Mr. Bratt looks no more like Piñero than Mr. Hoffman looked like Bruce, but it hardly matters. Both performances spark with inner truth.

Who knew that Mr. Bratt, who is best known to audiences as the reserved (but smoldering) detective Reynaldo Curtis in the television series "Law and Order," could generate and sustain such screen electricity? It is a career-defining performance that could catapult the 37-year-old actor beyond bland romantic leads and into the kinds of juicy anti-heroic parts once gobbled up by Mr. Hoffman and Robert De Niro.

What's so impressive about Mr. Bratt's evocation of the Puerto Rican playwright who crashed onto the theatrical scene in the early 1970's with his prison drama "Short Eyes" (first developed as a workshop at Sing Sing, then presented by the Public Theater, then made into a movie) is that he doesn't overplay his hand. Even in the most unstrung moments, Mr. Bratt's Piñero retains a layer of sinuous craftiness.

Take Piñero's observation that writing is "half inspiration, half inhalation" (meaning drugs). Or his self-justification for continued antisocial behavior even after becoming successful: "I have to keep doing bad to keep the writing good." Mr. Bratt lends these crucial lines just the right edge of insinuating self-awareness and humorous, throwaway cool. His Piñero is the kind of man who, even in the most desperate times, is always "on," instinctively calculating his effect from behind a hip mask.

Mr. Ichaso ("Sugar Hill," "Crossover Dreams") who directed and wrote the screenplay, has constructed a movie that is more montage than narrative as it flashes back and forth between color and black-and-white and jumps around in time, ending with Piñero's death and a candlelight procession through the Lower East Side. A cinematic style that is too often used to camouflage a lack of structure and narrative cohesion here becomes an effective metaphor for Piñero's chaotic life and for his free- form streetwise poetry, although that precludes meaningful character development.

That poetry, which invokes the seedier side of urban life with a celebratory zeal, falls stylistically somewhere between the Beats and contemporary rap. Its cool incantatory tone has much in common with Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets while lacking their incisive political bite.

The screenplay is mercifully free of moralizing, and although Piñero fits the cliché of a charismatic damned poet, the movie's myth-making machinery doesn't go overboard. While depicting Piñero's squandering of his own talent, his dissipation and self-destruction as an appalling waste, it allows him the last word on why. While placing some of the blame on Piñero's father (Jaime Sanchez), who walked out on the family when Piñero was a little boy, it refrains from dishing out cheap psychological explanations. Piñero is allowed to be the author of his fate.

Flickering in and out of the movie are many of the crucial figures in Piñero's life. Rita Moreno is the passionately devoted mother who encouraged his artistic talent. Talisa Soto is Sugar, his primary lover, a prostitute who stormed in and out of his life. When it comes to sex, the movie is frustratingly coy, implying Piñero's bisexuality (and possibly male prostitution) but never following through on these implications.

Giancarlo Esposito is Miguel Algarin, his mentor and closest friend, with whom he founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the still-thriving Lower East Side poetry hub. Mandy Patinkin is his other father figure, Joseph Papp, who nurtured "Short Eyes." And Michael Irby is Piñero's playwriting protégé Reinaldo Povod, whose successful play, "Cuba and His Teddy Bear," drove Piñero to fits of jealousy when it was produced at the Public Theater in 1986. A scene in which Piñero arrives drunk and belligerent at that play's opening- night performance is one the film's most painful.

As the movie runs circles and pops flashes around its title character, the most important theme that emerges is Piñero's complicated and controversial attitude toward his Puerto Rican heritage. In one of the most telling scenes, Piñero visits Puerto Rico for the first time since childhood and delivers a speech to a group of well-groomed academics, who express irritation at his claiming to represent Hispanic culture. Piñero, in turn, sneers at their genteel aspirations. The confrontation embodies the conflicting drives for assimilation and assertion of ethnic pride that strain every group.

The movie portrays Piñero as a proud, unapologetic outsider who resisted assimilation and whose primary identification throughout his life was with the poor, scuffling street culture in which he grew up. In the movie's final scene, his ashes are scattered, following his instructions, on the streets of his beloved Lower East Side. For Piñero the price of doing bad to keep his writing good was steep. He died at 41.


    Written and directed by Leon Ichaso; director of photography, Claudio Chea; edited by David Tedeschi; production designer, Sharon Lomofsky; produced by John Penotti, Fisher Stevens and Tim Williams; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 103 minutes. This film is rated R.

    WITH: Benjamin Bratt (Miguel Piñero), Giancarlo Esposito (Miguel Algarin), Talisa Soto (Sugar), Michael Irby (Reinaldo Povod), Rita Moreno (Miguel's Mother), Jaime Sanchez (Miguel's Father) and Mandy Patinkin (Joseph Papp).


Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback