No, they have not already made a sequel to In the Heights. The other night I got home from watching another run-of-the-mill Hollywood offering in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and wanted something special. Because I have a subscription to HBO Max, I thought what could be better than In the Heights? It is certainly the best movie I have seen so far this year. If you follow my reviews, then you will know how high of praise that is coming from an avowed musical hater like me, though I do not like using words like “hate.” Suffice to say, I do not enjoy musicals. And yet the film’s message of hope, mixed with the emotional reaction I had to it, trump my distaste for such productions. In re-watching it and thinking about what I initially wrote, I realized there was a key aspect that I had forgotten to mention. It centers on the character of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), and when I saw it again, I got teary eyed once more when she dies. Hence, my desire to do an additional review of the film, albeit a shorter one.
I will not rehash once more the plot for In the Heights. If you need a refresher, please take a look at my first review. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Abuela. Though she is not anyone’s actual grandmother, everyone in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City see her in this familiar way. If not, they give her the respectful title of doña. Roughly translated, the word means “lady,” but more in the sense of somebody of noble birth. In one of the more touching scenes of the film (and I just cried all over looking up the song), the entire neighborhood turns out in candlelight to sing “Alabanza.” As Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) explains it to the children gathered in his shop (though you do not know that is where they are until the end), the word means “to raise this thing to God’s face, and to sing quite literally praise to this.” In relating more to the children about who Abuela Claudia was, he talks about how she sang the praises of the little things we so often ignore. The song talks about “glass Coke bottles, bread crumbs, and a sky full of stars.” I am with Abuela Claudia on these things, and I desire to praise God more for them. However, she explains it more concretely earlier in the movie when she is showing Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) the hand embroidered napkins she wants to bring out for an upcoming dinner party for Nina’s return from college. As Nina marvels at the beautiful stitchwork, Abuela reminds her that in this incredible craftwork her people were able to assert their dignity in small ways. May God bless you, Abuela. Our modern world seems so insistent on people being recognized immediately and in the most prominent way possible as people. To be clear, we should respect everyone no matter who they are, or their station in life. The common denominator with all of us is that we are all God’s creations. God loves everything He creates, and so should we. Abuela’s family came from Cuba in the 1940s, and followed a familiar immigrant story of working hard with little reward, financially or socially, for everything they did. Under circumstances like that, it is easy for people to be downtrodden for being of a different race, socio-economic status, or neighborhood. Still, a gorgeous napkin, a Sunday dress, or good food shared with friends and family reminds yourself, if not the rest of the world, that you are still here and that your eyes are on God. This all also comes in the form of a pep talk to Nina, who tells of how she had been treated like a servant at a fundraiser dinner while she was at school. In the end, Nina goes back to Stanford University. It is her napkin.
How does Abuela Claudia keep going through a difficult immigration, menial labor, and hot summers in In the Heights? By practicing “pacienca y fe,” patience and Faith. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said that we are not built for comfort. The Faith life truly does take patience and Faith, not to mention an ability to deal with discomfort. When Abuela is about to die, with the summer heat oppressing Washington Heights and no power to run air conditioners or fans, she sings of the need for these two things. It is a moment juxtaposed by the idea that there is no electricity, meaning that they are powerless. And yet she is going before those she loves to the Power, to God. In my first review, I concentrated on the theme of people accomplishing their dreams, though it not turning out as they expect. This, too, comes with patience and Faith. People want their dreams to come true not only as they want them to, regardless of God’s will, but they want them right now. Abuela followed a different path. She bought lottery tickets like the rest of the neighborhood from Usnavi’s store, but never looked at the ticket to see if she won. It was only weeks after her passing while Usnavi is packing up her stuff that he discovers the winning lottery ticket. She also did not take her heart medicine, but instead spent most of her time thanking God for the little things in her life. Everyone in the neighborhood was dear to her, the napkins were precious, and a cold Coke on a hot summer day was a little piece of Heaven. The Bible describes the way to Heaven as a narrow path with a narrow gate. One could also interpret “narrow” as small, and it is not an easy one to follow. It takes attention to detail, and that is what Abuela did.
I recognize that I can be somewhat critical about most films. When you see as many as I have, you realize that there truly is a lack of creativity in Hollywood. The bulk of them are hyper-violent, overly sexual, or irreverent to the point of absurdity. Does this make me old fashioned? I do not know. You can decide for yourself based on your reading of my reviews. Because of the usual dreck I wade through, for In the Heights I say Alabanza.