Mexican beauty Camilla hopes to rise above her station by marrying a wealthy American. That is complicated by meeting Arturo Bandini, a first-generation Italian hoping to land a writing career and a blue-eyed blonde on his arm.
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Elisabeth Dermot Walsh,
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L.A. in the early 1930's: racism, poverty, and disease color the Bunker Hill neighborhood where Arturo Bandini, a lover of men and beasts alike, has arrived from Colorado to write the great Los Angeles novel. After six months and down to his last nickel, he orders a cup of coffee, served by Camilla Lopez, beautiful, self-possessed, and Mexican. Arturo gets advice, encouragement, and an occasional check from H.L. Mencken, so he keeps writing and he keeps seeing Camilla. But, he's mean to her for no apparent reason, so the relationship sputters. A housekeeper from back East suggests a way out of his jealously and fears. "Camilla Bandini": is it in the cards? Written by
"I am a lover of beasts and men." So Colin Farrell's writer, Arturo Bandini, reveals his humanistic longings and along the way his inexperience with humans. His love is the Mexican beauty Camilla, played better than Katy Jurado ever could by Salma Hyeck, with whom he fights from the cute meeting to the very end. But it is a love nevertheless, with a strength often given only to those who fight passionately.
This is 1935 LA, land of love and art, with a whole bunch of racism thrown in between the abstractions. Arturo's being Italian throws a certain doubt on whether he could eventually marry this Mexican Camilla. Ask the Dust subtly explores a melting pot of racism, of course including the ever present persecution of the Jews. In fact, no one in the film has found a mate or a home yet anyway, so loneliness and disenfranchisement are always there.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's shots are each a marvel of painterly cinema, just the right brownish, noirish lighting and shadows to create a marginal world of dream and destitution where only love could create wealth. And what a love. These two leads are to the camera born, their dark good looks making them as much brother and sister as reluctant lovers. Farrell speaks almost as if he is narrating, which he does as well; his intonations are weighty in sotto voce, uncharacteristic of the more flamboyant characters he is used to playing. Hyeck has lusty dignity with a spicy stubbornness that makes you believe she is worthy of marrying this gringo and living happily ever after.
But that ending is the clichéd part of the story, as if all stories about writers must end with a tragedy. Towne, however, tempers the darkness with hope, an aspiration in abundant supply in lala land, but the compromised kind reminding us at the end of his towering Chinatown that it's out of our hands.
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