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TV Review: 'Miracle' is a true television gem

Sunday, October 12, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a complaint I hear all the time: TV has gotten so bad! There's nothing for our family to watch!

"The Maldonado Miracle"

When: 8 tonight on Showtime.

Starring: Peter Fonda, Eddy Martin, Mare Winningham, Ruben Blades.

It's true TV is more coarse, more crude than ever. To a great extent, that's the result of more choices and more networks chasing the same advertising dollars. ("Let's lure them in with sex! Profanity! Pushing the envelope!") But there's a side benefit: Now there are programs that appeal to just about every segment of the audience. It's a matter of picking through all that's out there to find the good stuff.

Showtime's "The Maldonado Miracle" surely qualifies as "good stuff." The premium cable network premieres the film tonight at 8 as one of its "Original Pictures For All Ages" (bet you didn't even know such a banner for family programming on the network existed).

After the death of his mother, 11-year-old Jose Maldonado (Eddy Martin) and his dog, Sanchez, illegally cross the border from Mexico to California in an effort to find Jose's father, who is working in American fields.

Jose wanders into the town of San Ramos, his arm gashed (how it happened is explained later). He takes refuge in a Roman Catholic church, lying down in scaffolding over the altar and a statue of Christ. The next morning, a parishioner notices blood on the statue and declares it a miracle.

Dispirited Father Russell (Peter Fonda) is skeptical, but a circus-like atmosphere springs up anyway, bringing new life to San Ramos, a dying former mining town.

Though the film moves at what's sometimes too slow a pace, there's a John Sayles quality to "Maldonado," particularly its depiction of the people of San Ramos.

Maisie (Mare Winningham) runs the town diner and longs for companionship. Cruz (Ruben Blades) is a loner who runs a small bar. Lyle (Bill Sage), married to beauty shop owner Stella (Christina Cabot), doesn't seem to have a purpose in life. The town's sheriff, Frank Olcott (Dan Merket), also owns the gas station.

Their lives become entangled in the mystery of the bleeding Christ and the new Mexican boy seen around town.

"The Maldonado Miracle" marks the directorial debut of actress Salma Hayek, who had no particular desire to direct but was encouraged to try by a Showtime executive. She passed on the opportunity several times before finding an aspect of the story that appealed to her.

"The script they gave me was a lot more about the miracle and the Catholic Church and the priest," Hayek said at a July press conference in Hollywood. "I was not very passionate about that theme. But I was passionate about the town and portraying another kind of miracle, the little miracles we can do once we have a little bit of hope, and I was passionate about the humanity."

She said she wanted to make a film that echoed the idea of a loss of home, something felt by the residents of dying San Ramos.

"You have a sense and a smell of what home feels like, and one day it just vanishes," she said. "You go through life with a sense of loss, looking for the sensation of belonging. Every character in this town has a little bit of that. The town itself is the broken home, but the boy that has a broken home of his own ... is the hope that comes into the town."

"The Maldonado Miracle" is based on a book of the same name by children's author Theodore Taylor, who wrote "The Cay" and, my personal favorite, the Outer Banks Trilogy ("Teetoncey," "Teetoncey and Ben O'Neal" and "The Odyssey of Ben O'Neal," which are out of print but are to be re-published next year).

Taylor, 82, said "Maldonado" has been out of print since the early '80s but was recently re-published as a tie-in to the Showtime movie. The film doesn't adhere strictly to the story in the novel, but Taylor is still pleased with the result.

"It is different, but I think it sticks to the miracle part," Taylor said in a phone interview last month. "I always worry about what's going to happen and I'm so pleased this time that the guts of the story are there. [Hayek has] added some characters, of course, but I'm really very pleased, and I was prepared not to be pleased."

Taylor said he was inspired to write "Maldonado," originally published in Redbook magazine in the 1960s, by two separate real-life incidents: a trip to Mexico with his family, where he met a boy named Jose, whose mother had died, who was going to look for his father in America, and a visit to a dying California town. There he saw a statue of Jesus Christ in a church and began to think of ways the town could be revived.

Back in the '60s, his agent tried to sell "Maldonado" to movie studios, but none were interested. A racist climate prevailed, the author said.

"Disney said nobody would pay any money to see a Mexican boy. A Columbia story editor said, 'Who needs tacos?'" Taylor recalled. Actress Eva Marie Saint bought the rights in the '80s, intending to change the priest to a nun, but studios again balked.

Times changed -- or maybe a little miracle happened -- and "The Maldonado Miracle" has been made into a film full of spirit and completely appropriate for family viewing.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 . Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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