The Virgin of Juárez (Kevin James Dobson, 2006)
It kind of seems like a can’t-miss proposition, doesn’t it? Put together a big Hollywood movie about a journalist traveling to Juárez, Mexico, to cover a story about a possible serial killer there who’s racking up more bodies than Henry Lee Lucas. (This is, by the way, a true story; between 1993 and 2012, the body count is up to 370, per Wikipedia, and “…female homicides per capita in Juárez is significantly higher than any other major city in Mexico or the United States.”) Throw in an apathetic government, cops who may be covering for the killer(s), and some random drug and gang activity. (This is still a true story, by the way, we haven’t started with the Hollywood embellishment yet.) Now throw in a roster of Hollywood B-listers and Mexican stars who have never gotten their due in America, seize on an unconfirmed rumor regarding one of the killer’s (killers’?) survivors and kind of do a double-backflip-reverse on it in the name of drama, and you have The Virgin of Juárez—a movie that could have, and likely should have, been far, far better than it is.
The journalist in question is Karina Danes (Return to Me‘s Minnie Driver). She gets ahold of the story that there seems to be a serial killer down Mexico way, and goes down to see what she can dig up. What she finds is Mariela (El Crimen del Padre Amaro‘s Ana Claudia Talancón), one of the very few women to escape, and who claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Some of the locals are now considering Mariela an incarnation of the Virgin, and have set up a shrine to her. Mariela’s brother Felix (Scandal‘s Guillermo Díaz), a local gangster, has his boys running security at the shrine, but are their motivations purely religious? And is it possible the local constabulary actually know the person (or people) committing the murders, but covering it up?
It’s a complex enough story in real life that it might have been a good idea to focus on one or two aspects of it and make everything else background color. Scriptwriter Michael Fallon (The Mask) decided to try going the opposite way, making it more complex without stripping out any of the underpinnings. A laudable goal to set for yourself…if you have the time to make an eight- or nine-hour film that can tackle all this complexity and add in the odd magical-realist spiritual angle. (For the record, from what I can discern from reading about three dozen articles about all this on the internet, one of the survivors did have visions of the Virgin Mary and considers the Virgin to have personally intervened in her fate, but I have seen no indication that said survivor is now worshipped as an icon in Juárez.) As it stands, though, Fallon tried to do too much in too little time. Dobson (Outriders), normally a TV director, might not have noticed anything amiss; after all, he’s used to directing series, which have a much greater span of time to work these things out, and I’ve often commented on the difficulty of the transition between TV and feature directing. I’m not going to pin any (or much) of the blame on Dobson here, who had a pretty light touch with the camera, and I’m certainly not going to pin any of it on the cast; Driver didn’t have quite the sparkle here of her best roles, but she brought at least her A- game. Talancón works as well as she can given that her role is more archetype than actual human being. Esai Morales? Who even knew he still had that kind of role in him? They all deserved a better script to work with. **