While blockbusters are ever more commercially focused on generalizing audience mass appeal in order to maximize profits, and in so doing forfeit any solid connection to distinct individual character depth, regional filmmaking proceeds in the opposite direction. That is, aspiring to the unique flavor of particular personalities and linked sense of place. And director Victor Nunez (Ulee’s Gold) admirably achieves that palpable essence of conflicted emotional inner life with Spoken Word, grounded in its cultural surroundings, for better or worse.
In Spoken Word, San Francisco poet Cruz Montoya (Kuno Becker) is called back home by relatives to rural New Mexico, because his estranged father Cruz Sr. (Ruben Blades) has contracted terminal cancer. A writer and performer who has long prided himself as a craftsman of lyrical speech, Cruz is suddenly stricken with a loss of language along with his withdrawn dad, as he struggles to communicate with a father he has long disappointed. It seems that before Cruz left his Chicano family and cultural roots to pursue his poetic passions in public, he had become notoriously and dangerously immersed in the local drug culture back home.
Spoken Word is most dramatically eloquent in scenes where father and son struggle awkwardly and painfully to reestablish a family bond broken long ago, in the context of a different kind of raw language conceived as ‘poetry not on the page.’ Likewise conveying a deeply forged sense of cultural connection are scenes of the Chicano extended family negotiating intimate resentments and grievances that are transcended by profound emotional ties, however inarticulate.
What is more weakly developed are abruptly shifting references to racial clashes, and the impact of Cruz Sr.’s experienced trauma as a Vietnam veteran. And what is surely a timely thorny local issue, the cross-cultural border conflicts flaring up right now, in that region. In any case, the remarkable poetry intertwined with the narrative as it flows along, renders Spoken Word a uniquely crafted introspective yet profoundly visceral film experience, touching on the healing powers of the music in language.